Reading Women: How To Be Both by Ali Smith

Dawn McGuigan book reviews

Ali Smith’s How To Be Both is a playful, two-part novel that reconstructs our understanding of fiction and identity.

My book club, Book and Brew, has been chosen by The Reading Agency to review three books from the Women’s Prize for Fiction back catalogue as part of the Reading Women campaign. Each of our books explores identity and the second book is Ali Smith’s How To Be Both.

Find out more about us and what we’ll be doing here.

What’s is about?

Here’s the blurb from the publisher:

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.

Prize winner

Smith took home the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2015, beating competition from these shortlisted titles:

Laline Paull, The Bees
Anne Tyler, A Spool of Blue Thread
Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests
Kamila Shamsie, A God in Every Stone
Rachel Cusk, Outline

It was the darling of the literary world in 2014/15 and took home an impressive haul of awards, including the Goldsmith Prize, Costa Novel Award and Saltire Society Literary Book of the Year award, and was nominated for the Folio Prize and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Told you it was impressive.

How To Be Both was printed in two versions: one with the modern narrative first and the other with the 15th-century tale at the front of the book. If they avoided the book chat on this chronological quirk, readers were unaware of this and their perception of the novel was forever shaped by this clever device. Smith described the dual structure as “very simple and unostentatious”, saying its purpose was to “gesture to all the ways to read that are possible”.

Women’s Prize Chair of Judges, Shami Chakrabarti described Ali Smith as the love child of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce and How To Be Both as an “[exploration of] humanity with the most beautiful poetic prose”.

What did I think?

I have an odd relationship with Ali Smith’s writing. I love the detail of her prose but I don’t always enjoy the experience of reading her work.

Let me explain.

Smith’s writing is punctuated with unassuming gems that take my breath away with their poignancy and insight. They appear out of nowhere and leave me reeling for hours. Things like Smith’s description of art, for example: “Art makes nothing happen in a way that makes something happen.” Ah, lovely.

Or this scene that travelled to the depths of my consciousness:

I have this need, H is saying
What need? George says.
To be more, H says.
More what? George says.
Well, H says and her voice sounds strangely altered. More.
Oh, George says.

Who hasn’t felt this? Felt the need to be more than they are, feeling unfulfilled by their life but not sure what, who or how they can plug those gaps.

It is these moments that are the joy of Smith’s writing and How To Be Both has many of them.

The experience of reading Smith’s reading is not as positive for me, however. The comparisons to Woolf and Joyce are apt as Smith harnesses contemporary stream of consciousness techniques to offer an array of voices, plot lines and themes at break-neck speed. Her writing is fast and frenzied, often taking time and patience to sweep into coherence.

I appreciate the artistry of Smith’s playfulness and the way she deconstructs narrative and structural norms. But, I can’t say that enjoy those features as a reader.

How To Be Both is a challenging novel: it forces us to reconsider literary norms and to contemplate how we craft our own identities. It feels particularly fitting to read in 2020 as we explore the ideas of gender/sex identities and the notions of self-identification in various forms.

The book continues to be an important novel that rewrites our understanding of fiction and identity.

Read the other Book and Brew members’ review of How To Be Both here.

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