How To Be Both by Ali Smith

I would like to give a special shoutout to my beautiful friend Katie for recommending me this book ❤!

It’s my first read from Ali Smith and How To Be Both has managed to put me in such an admiration state. A total adoration for the author and her creativity and her brilliance. Just when you finish the book you realize that the title How To Be Both is not so subtle and yet so complex. Ali Smith plays with different dualities here: male/female, young/adult, living/dead and raise important questions about one’s identity.

(c) Trang for Bookidote

The story recounts the grief of 16-year-old Georgie in dealing with her mother’s recent death, and the other half of the book is about a ghost of Italian Renaissance artist Francesco del Cossa and how he became known to the world.

For four hundred years, he didn’t exist. No one even knew the room had frescoes in it till only about a hundred or so years ago […] They’d been whitewashed over for hundreds of years. Then some whitewash fell off the walls and they found these pictures underneath.

How To Be Both, Ali Smith

(c) Trang for Bookidote

Smith’s paying tribute to both history and art by making George’s character learns how important it is to leave a trace in the world, no matter how big or small . Like a nod to her grief feeling, trying to deal with what’s gone but what’s never really gone either. She would ponder about the memories of lost ones and its consequences.

(c) Trang for Bookidote

I found out after reading that there are two versions of this novel. I got George’s story first and although I loved Francesco’s poetic style, I still prefer George’s perspective. There’s a feeling to it that rekindles something in me, as if the interactions and the recollections of George’s mother reminded me of how precious time is with my parents and I guess, it made cherish them even more. Interestingly enough, someone mentioned on Goodreads that whichever version you have, you will always prefer the first half better. I wonder if it was an intentional act from the author, mirroring her dilemma of which comes first:

But which came first? […] The picture underneath or the picture on the surface?

The picture below came first, George says. Because it was done first.

But the first thing we see, her mother said, and most times the only thing we see, is the one on the surface. So does that mean it comes first after all? And does that mean the other picture, if we don’t know about it, may as well not exist?

How to Be Both, Ali Smith

(c) Trang for Bookidote

I’d be curious to know how my experience would have been if I were to start with Francesco’s story. All in all, I would definitely recommend this book for people who would love to learn about art but also reflect on its effects on us while exploring different fundamentals questions about ourselves and our identities.

P.S : There are so many things you can do to analyze this book even further, like the parallels between George and Francesco’s story, the ambiguity around their sexual identities, the fact that they both lost their mothers and so on. But, that would be for another discussion time 😉

RATING: 4.5/5

HAVE any of you read the book? What did you think? (:

Review by TRANG TRAN

(c) Trang for Bookidote


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