Review: How to be Both by Ali Smith

September 29, 2014

Author: Ali Smith
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Year: 2014
ISBN: 9780241146828
Rating: ★★★★½
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How to be Both is not just a book. It is an art form by itself. Depending on your luck, you might get one version of the book, or the other. Your understanding of the story could change, depending on which version you happen to read.

That’s how the book has been printed. It has 2 parts: one is about a teenage girl, George/Georgia, dealing with her mother’s death, and the other is about the spirit of a bygone artist that George’s mom spoke about.

I happened to get a book that had George’s part first. George is mourning the death of her mother a few months before.The narrative is written in such a way that you experience this loss personally; the narrator, on George’s behalf, constantly corrects the grammar of her sentences (“When they see the painting, George’s mom says…. Not says. Said.”) George’s mother was an economist, a feminist, a freethinker and, most importantly from the perspective of the plot, a Subvert, someone who used early pop-up technology to make unexpected things appear on a webpage, just like pop-up advertisements, but meant as a political statement.

Since her charismatic, provocative, fun-loving mother’s death, George has been cut adrift. Every day she does the ‘dance thing’, a dance routine her mother did as part of her daily exercise regime. Every day she watches a horrifying porn video, as tribute to the underage actress in it. She deliberately neglects to mention the leak in the roof to her father. She attends counseling sessions with the school psychiatrist, where she reveals her suspicions that her mother was being watched by the government for her subvert activities (but is she being paranoid? Does she even believe this herself?) And she wonders about Lisa Goliard, her mother’s friend (lover?) who disappeared before her mother died.

Actually, this seems like a lot… and yet all of it is dealt with lightly, almost carelessly. There’s a lot going on, and the reader must pay attention to tiny details to get a sense of what’s happening.

The other part deals with the spirit of Francesco del Cossa, a young girl who dresses up as a man, to be able to work as a fresco painter. History tells us that this particular painter demanded more money for a collaborative painting that he was one of the many painters on, because he felt he was better than the others. Now, his (her?) spirit has been resurrected, and is following George on her soul-searchings.


This book has no real beginning, middle or end; at least none that was discernible to me, in my first reading. Rather, it is the same tale, rather the same slice of time, told from two perspectives. One is the sketch underneath, the other is the ‘real’ painting. Which is which?

As such, this book is not just a book; it is a puzzle, a mental whodunnit. And it makes you think about art, the creation of it by the artist, the experiencing of it by the viewer. Whose version is ‘correct’?

The narrative is peppered with other gems : tender notes on mother-daughter relationships where supportive mothers help expand their daughters’ horizons. Sidelights on love, sexual feelings, friendships, siblings, animals, modern technology, ancient art, pop culture.

Does it deserve the Booker?

I’ve read two other nominees : The Lives of Others and We are all Completely Beside Ourselves. Of the three, this is the one that strikes out in a new direction. It is a delicate bit of tightrope walking, a genre-breaking, surprise-on-every-page type of book. Like last year’s winner, this one is … well, different.

As of now, my money’s on this one.

The Verdict

This is not an easy book to read. There is no real plot, no tying up of loose ends. Engaging? undoubtedly. Entertaining? Hmmm. I’d say, no, not entertaining exactly. Without being particularly highbrow or difficult, it is thought-provoking, yes. If you want something out of the ordinary, if you want to be challenged, then this is the book for you. Like a fine piece of porcelain, or a lovingly crafted wine, or a skillfully rendered raaga, this book is writing elevated to the highest level as an art form.

Mugdha Wagle

Mugdha Wagle

Content Editor at IndiaBookStore
Kitabi Keeda of the most obsessive sort. When she's reading something, interrupt her only if you have life insurance! Discovering a fantastic new author can move her to tears. Loves trekking, adores animals and venerates good food (eating it, not cooking it :))!
Mugdha Wagle


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