How to be Both by Ali Smith is an intriguing book. Written in sections, it tells the story of Georgia whose mother has recently died and also of Francesco del Cossa a fifteenth century painter. Published in two different forms—one presents Georgia’s story first; the other tells del Cossa’s first—the novel, as we rather expect from Ali Smith, plays with our expectations of story. My copy from the library began with Georgia. I am still trying to decide whether I would have preferred it otherwise.
With Smith’s shifting points of view, her concerns about genre and gender, her references to historical events, and her subtle allusions and word play, the work invites us to think about creating, about art, about self-definition. At times comic, at others heart-rendingly melancholic, How to be Both engages with our expectations and definitions of love, injustice, fate, truth, lies, and ways of seeing and being. Its title says it all: How to Be Both. It is both comic and tragic. It focuses on duality and on instability. What do we know? How do we know?
“Which comes first?” Georgia’s mother asks while on holiday in Ferrara some time before her death, “What we see or how we see?” (104).
If the novel actually never answers those questions definitively, it raises them and more. Things are never quite what they seem. Can we believe what we see? Do we understand how not only paintings and stories but our lives are built up layer upon layer of presents that become pasts? Even our identities are not as fixed as we may think. To what extent do we make them? And what about the difference between fact and fiction?
I enjoyed this book.
If you are able, you might want to visit the National Gallery in London to view del Cossa’s picture of St. Vincent Ferrer. The following link may serve instead. https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/francesco-del-cossa-saint-vincent-ferrer This picture plays an important role in the plot structure of both narratives.