top of page

Review of 'How to be Both' by Ali Smith


Smith’s novel was printed in two versions, identical but for the order of the two stories which it contains. Which of the novel’s strands – George’s and Francesco’s – did your copy of the novel begin with?

How did this ordering affect your experience and understanding of the novel? How do you think this would have differed had you picked up the alternate version? Did you prefer one strand to the other? If so, why? On a related point, would the novel work better had Smith chosen a particular set order? To what extent does/could either strand stand alone?

My copy began with Francesco’s strand which was so disjointed (especially in the beginning) that I found myself struggling with confusion as to who was speaking and what he/she was talking about. It took a while for the sense of time, place and person to become real but once it did it was quite compelling. The writing about art was fascinating and I do think both strands could stand alone. However, I think they work well together.It would have been easier to come to grips with a version that began with the George strand. This was more solid and seemed to give a stronger sense of story, whereas the Francesco strand was detail and description and elaboration.I think I would have been more inclined to continue if the George strand had come first. It is likely I wouldn’t have persevered past the first few pages of the Francesco strand had it not been required for the course.

Why do you think Smith made this unconventional choice? Is How to Be Both a successful novelistic experiment, in your opinion? From reading the article where Smith discusses what inspired her to write this book, it’s clear that she was inspired by a picture at a time that she had been looking for a new idea for a novel. To me, the defining part of that article is when Smith says “I'd liked the notion that those first drawings had been there, unseen all along under the wall surface, which is, after all, what fresco is, an actual physical part of the wall. I'd been wondering if it might be possible to write a book consisting of something like this structure of layer and underlayer, something that could do both”. I do feel that this is a successful experiment, though the lack of initial clarity could put off less persevering readers. Though the book isn’t plot led, plenty does go on, with some engaging characterisation and gorgeous prose - and this is certainly one of my favourites on this course. The cover (two women walking along a street) really did not endear the book to me and I couldn’t figure out what it had to do with the actual story. I thought the book was going to be chick-lit. I discovered that this is the photograph mentioned in the novel (of Francoise Hardy and Sylvie Vartan) regarding a similarity to George. But it didn’t encapsulate the novel in my opinion.

We’ve discussed several novels in the unit which employ various forms of stranding (the alternating letters, novelistic prose, and magic realist history of Trachimbrod in Everything is Illuminated; the linear Leah/Felix/Keisha structure of NW; the similarly linear character stranding in Arlington Park). Smith could have chosen to structure How to Be Both in an alternating way (George/Francesco/George/Franceso, etc.). How would this more ‘recursive’ structure have altered the text, in your opinion?

A more recursive structure could have been beneficial, but ultimately this structure did work.I enjoyed getting inside the head of Francesco and George and really found that devoting a section to each was beneficial. However, I don’t think this is a book which gives everything on first read.I’m looking forward to reading the Francesco section again, having now read the George section as I think the subtlety will come across better at the second time.


How do the two strands relate to each other (or not)? Which themes and ideas run through both stories? Do they do so convincingly/satisfactorily, in your opinion? To what extent does one story elucidate or enhance our understanding of the other?

The two stories cross very well. There are some direct connections and references which make the reader think further about the overlap.It seems perhaps obvious to have a character in a photo or painting interacting with the viewer, but is a lot less usual for the interaction to be with a not particularly well known painter. I enjoyed this unusual feature very much. The themes of art appreciation, difficulty fitting into the world, and conflict in general do come across brilliantly.

Why is the novel called How to Be Both? How many ‘boths’ (reflections, pairings, binaries oppositions) can you identify in the text?

Both relating to: two genders, two historical eras, “top layer and underlayer” of story (like fresco), famous and anonymous, alive and in purgatory, “every circumstance or obstacle can be subverted and become its opposite at the same time” ( review), British teen/Italian fresco painter, two sexualities, and “Why, Smith seems to ask, should we expect a book to run from A to B, by way of a recognisable plot and subplot, peopled by characters who are easily understood to be one thing or another?” (Guardian review).

How is time and tense treated in the novel? How does the novel articulate the distinction between now and then, past and present, which we’ve discussed, for example, in relation to Ian McEwan’s Saturday?

The Francesco section is about a woman artist who lived as a man.She is in purgatory in the present, and recalls her past life many centuries ago. The George section is set in the current day with musings on the past and on art. I am sorry – this was the final question I looked at and I didn’t get time to answer properly as my copy of the book has been lost somewhere in the mess of my house with the builder, plaster and rewiring electricians all going on at the same time.


Characterise the narrative voice, and other literary qualities, in both strands. How do they compare and contrast? In what ways might the choice of narrative perspective help or hinder in both stories?

I am sorry – I didn’t have time to answer this question and couldn’t find the book.

How would you describe Smith’s style? Is How to Be Both in fact a novel of multiple styles? If possible, find examples to help make your case.

I adored the Ali Smith Observer article – ‘He looked like the finest man who ever lived’ – the love of life and art shine out in her prose which, to me, is a true credit to the white-clad figure in the painting. The style is an abstract and disjointed first person in the Francesco section- and its rambling muses take a little getting used to. The George section is more traditional prose, and works well after Francesco.

Substantial sections of the novel are devoted to the description of art works and other visual images. What affects does this detailed verbal exploration of images have? Did you feel it was successful? Does Smith run any risks in relying so heavily upon this approach? (You might find it interesting to look up the term Ekphrasis and decide whether or not this idea could be justifiably related to the novel.) I absolutely love the writing about artistry and art works in this novel. The techniques used, the cheekiness of the artist, the prostitute visits to draw the human form… it all works so well for me as someone who loves art and it surrounded by it. I don’t know much about this period of art and found it fascinating, yet I do think there is a chance that Smith may run the risk of alienating potential readers who don’t experience the same sense of enjoyment from this approach. Mind you, would such readers pick up this book? I don’t know. Regarding “ekphrasis” – this relates to a piece of work which is directly about a piece of art or music etc – I would say that this book definitely fits. It doesn’t only use a huge amount of description about artworks and techniques, it also was inspired by a real life painting.

Are there any other issues relating to the novel which you’d like to discuss?

Close Readings (obviously accurate pagination is a problem in this novel, so I’ve decided to look at the openings of both stories)

The opening five and a half pages of George’s story, from ‘Consider this’ to ‘below the voice.’

The opening six pages of Francesco’s story, from ‘Ho this is a mighty twisting’ to ‘as soon as I open my’.

Creative exercise

Write a short piece of two paragraphs, in which a character from one period observes a character in another (it doesn’t have to be George and Francesco). The perception of each character should be ‘contained’ in a single paragraph. The choice of whether the voyeur comes first or second in the piece is yours. Obviously the brevity of the exercise demands the kind of condensation which is absent from How to be Both, but establishing and then switching between two perspectives should still be possible.

bottom of page