How to be Both

Ali Smith

How to be Both
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How to be Both

Ali Smith

Winner of the 2015 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction

Passionate, compassionate, vitally inventive and scrupulously playful, Ali Smith’s novels are like nothing else. How to be both is a novel all about art’s versatility. Borrowing from painting’s fresco technique to make an original literary double-take, it’s a fast-moving genre-bending conversation between forms, times, truths and fictions. There’s a renaissance artist of the 1460s. There’s the child of a child of the 1960s.

Two tales of love and injustice twist into a singular yarn where time gets timeless, structural gets playful, knowing gets mysterious, fictional gets real - and all life’s givens get given a second chance.

Winner of the GoldSmiths Prize 2014
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2014
Winner of the 2014 Costa Novel Award
Winner of the Saltire Society Literary Book of the Year Award 2014
Nominated for the Folio Prize 2015


Two dual narratives form Ali Smith’s new novel. In one, George is a teenage girl grieving the sudden death of her mother and starting to explore her sexuality. In the other, Francesco is an Italian renaissance artist, who it’s suggested was born a girl but lived as a man. You’ll open the novel to either one of these stories first because, as usual, Smith has no truck with passive readers. She wants us all to think about what we’re reading, about the how and why.

The copy of How to Be Both I received opened with George’s story and consequently, her experiences shaped how I then interpreted Francesco’s story. Reading the stories in this order, there is the suggestion that Francesco is borne of George’s imagination – a theory that is supported by the latter’s repeated use of the peculiarly modern phrase ‘just saying’. Yet, both stories echo one another in small and large ways and I suspect the experience would be reversed if read in the alternate order. The obvious connection between the two is a stunning fresco series in Ferrara, created by Francesco and viewed by George with her mother shortly before her mother’s death. Both stories seem to almost mirror the structure of these frescoes, so densely packed that each time one layer is peeled back, a new one reveals itself.

Smith’s prose is sly and slippery, witty and arch. At times, Smith’s cleverness becomes laborious but this is easily forgiven, as her love of language feels so genuine. She takes great delight in the general absurdity of words and sounds. When George, a grammar enthusiast, insists her parents call her by her full name and emphasises the ‘ia’ that follows George, her mother laughs: ‘Yah, Georg, yah, her mother says pretending to be a post girl from the past.’ How to Be Both is full of fascinating, playful moments.

Bronte Coates is the Digital Content Coordinator and Editorial Assistant for Readings Monthly. She is a co-founder of literary project, Stilts.

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