How to Be Both by Ali Smith

Ali Smith’s books have been on my radar for quite some time. I was debating on which book I should start with and I chose this one for two reasons.

First, I like the title. I keep choosing books based on titles. It’s a weird thing. And second, which was a determining point, is that this book is told in two parts. We get a perspective of a 16-year-old girl named George, who is struggling with her mother’s death and we get a perspective of a 15th century renaissance painter. And here’s the kicker: depending on which copy you buy, you could get either of the stories first, thus having a completely different reading experience.

My copy had George’s perspective first and I personally feel that that made the book work and I feel it would have little sense if it were the other way around, so I consider myself lucky on that front (there is some speculation that there in fact is no other version, that it was just a trick and George’s story always comes first, which as I said, makes a lot more sense.)

This book has no actual plot. It doesn’t even have a lot of character depth or building. It is more of a concept. But a beautiful concept. It touches on a bunch of themes, most prominently gender, but at its core it tackles the concept of being two things at once. Being both. Ali Smith introduces these topics mostly through conversations George has with her mother and the story has this delicate thread that ties it to the other part, the renaissance painter part, and it ties it all up so neatly.

This first part, in terms of writing, has a very specific tone to it (or it did to me) and it is: anxious. Smith’s writing style is very unique, the sentences are clipped and brisk, and there is almost no punctuation. So it almost imposes on you to read them without pause, quickly, sort of like a stream of consciousness, which works for the story perfectly.

The second part is different. It’s almost blurry and it makes really little sense. It’s poetic to the point of being completely overbearing and confusing, which is why I don’t see how anyone could actually finish this book, or even start it if they have this part first. It just doesn’t really make sense. At all. BUT. For me it made the book. Because it clicked with the first part and gave it background and by the end of it I was taken aback by this novel. I was really impressed with it.

This is a very hard book to review, because it’s hard to talk about it unless the person you’re talking to has also read it. But I loved how Ali Smith incorporated themes of being and not being at the same time and how heavily this was influenced by the concept of gender, albeit it was a bit in your face at times. At some points, I was like “Okay we get it, you don’t have to spell it out.”

Nevertheless, if you want something intelligent, and beautifully written, and you like experimental stuff and you’re interested in trying out something unlike anything you ever read I highly recommend you check it out.

Also please if you have read this, let me know what you thought about it. ALSO PLEASE, if anyone has a copy of this book let me know which part of the story is first in your copy!

3 thoughts on “How to Be Both by Ali Smith

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