How To Be Both – Ali Smith

By bogotapost October 10, 2014

Ali Smith-How to be both, Man Booker PrizeQUESTIONING not only binary notions such as how a book should read, but also sexuality, space, time and our conception of existence through history, this novel consists of two intertwining stories: the story of George, a teenage girl who has suffered a loss in her family and is experimenting with her own sexuality, and that of Francesco (based on the real life renaissance artist Francesco del Cossa), born a girl, who binds her chest and is responsible for the creation of fantastic mythical murals. The novel confuses and misleads, but it is a touching dual-narrative, which twists and turns between the two stories.

George is struggling to cope with the death of her intelligent and complex academic mother, bringing up her younger brother and her newly alcoholic father. Image and sexuality are key parts of George’s existence – prior to her mother’s death they visit renaissance artwork in Italy (Francesco is her mother Carol’s favourite artist). George becomes obsessed with photos of her mother on her bedroom wall, her new exploration of pornography on her iPad and photos of film stars from her friend H. It is through H and her iPad that George begins to change her dreary daily existence – she questions her own sexuality, begins to bunk off school to visit art galleries and uses pornography as her own unique study guide. H and George decide to do a school project on Francesco using “empathy” as their chosen subject – but as a reader we are left confused. Could the dual narrative be just a bizarre combination of two overactive teenage minds?

“What’s the point of art?” is an underlying question that links both narratives. Francesco, a girl wishing that she was born a man during renaissance Italy and in denial of her own sexuality, struggles to earn greater recognition for her frescoes. Francesco’s passages of narrative are artistic in themselves, her vivid convoluted phrases and descriptions which link passages in her part of the book, her desire to draw and paint prostitutes whilst visiting the brothel and ultimately her finale as a subject for George and H’s art project. Art is poignant and is the link between past and present: George uses the project and her memories of the Italy trip to bring her mother back to life, whilst Francesco lives on and enters George’s present through her own colourful creations.

It is as Carol says prior to her death: “Do things just go away? … Do things that happened not exist, or stop existing, just because we can’t see them happening in front of us?” This is the message that Smith leaves us with, a poignant, touching message that lingers long after finishing the novel. It is precisely this ambiguity of present and past which tricks and engrosses you right until the final page.

By Charlotte Mackenzie