Ali Smith: ‘How to be Both’

Confession: I read this book because I liked the photo on the cover. I’m not even sure how to explain this book, so first up, maybe you’d like to check out this review over at the Guardian.


How to be both is all about confused binaries and there are only two chapters: two chapters one. And Ali Smith printed half her books with one chapter first and the other half with the other. If I had bought this book at Better Read than Dead I would have started the story with George, a grieving (female) teenager from Cambridge. But I decided to borrow it from Five Dock library, so instead I started the story with Francescho , the ghost of an Italian Renaissance painter (and female – it took me 1.5 reads to work that out!). My decision to borrow the same book meant a different story!! What!?

I am a sucker for re-imagined stories about artists, I like the way they open a window to reinterpret real-life art or music in a different way. And I loved the way Ali Smith kept muddling my brain around with the two halves of the story, and the confusion between those binary categories – mostly around male/female, but also past/future, joy/grief, life/death, tangible/imagined.

But then even more, I loved reading about two different people and their worlds. It took me straight into 14th century Italy and suburban Cambridge. Thanks Ali Smith.

Finally, I loved this gem of a quote: about how a close relationship opens up profound communication and new meanings. It’s written about two friends, about love, but I read it and felt like Ali Smith was trying to describe what it meant for me to find and connect with and love fellow Christians.

It is also like H is trying to find a language that will make personal sense to George’s ears. No one has ever done this before for George. She has spent her whole life speaking other people’s languages. It is new to her. The newness of it has a sort of power that can make the old things – as old as these songs, even as old as Latin itself – a kind of new, but a kind that doesn’t dismiss their, what would you call it? … Their classic status? She nods. That’s it. Whatever is happening makes them new but lets them be old both at once.


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