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How to be both

“This will be the first year her mother hasn’t been alive since the year her mother was born.”

How to be both ~ Ali Smith

This book needs to sink in before you can safely set it aside and move on to your next read. As with all of Ali Smith’s writing, I was injected with an instant dose of happiness, from the very first sentence. It could have something to do with the manner of her writing; which reads a lot like a friend telling me a ridiculously made-up story while cradling a mug of hot chocolate and with a pair of colourful socks on.

I am wary of recommending this book too enthusiastically because it is delightfully experimental and sometimes verging on frustrating. It could all just pass you by in a blur – or it could engross you in its time warping, gender-defying, a sepulchral narrative that stretches across generations and continents.

The first section is set in contemporary times, where sixteen-year-old George (Georgina) is coping with the loss of her fiery feminist mother. Among her fondest memories, is a recent trip she took to Italy with her mother where they went to see this low-key exhibition of frescoes painted by a Renaissance painter Franchescho del Cossa, who the world knows practically nothing about.

The second section is a stream of consciousness monologue by the ghost of Franchescho, who tells us his story (her story), but I’m only over-simplifying matters here. Nothing is as easy as it sounds.

I wish I knew beforehand that this book is printed in two versions. One version begins with George’s story, and the other begins with Franchescho. I read the former.

Why you should read it:

  • This is a reflective novel and insightful in its study of art and themes of loss and love
  • There is method in its structural madness

Why you shouldn’t read it:

  • It is a struggle to read and I will admit that I dipped in and out of it, instead of reading it in one go
  • Ali Smith must be mad in her method