Book Review of Ali Smith's How to be both

Challenging conventions of literary style and full of philosphical questions, Ali Smith's How to be both is excellent, but difficult.

Ali Smith’s¬†How to be both¬†was fascinating and troubling. It is a story of two halves that can be read (and have actually been published in different orders). One story tells the tale of George, a 16 year old girl, who is coming to terms with the death of her mother. She becomes obsessed with renaissancea artist, Francesco del Coassa’s painting of St. Vincent Ferrer. George and her mother had talked about the artist when her mother took her to see the frescos in Ferrara in Italy before she died. Caring for her younger brother, coping with her alcoholic father and experiencing something approaching first love are aspects of George’s story,¬†

The other tale is told by¬†¬†Francesco del Cossa, who¬† has time-travelled from the 15th century to London and observes George studying his/her painting. We see Francesco’s reflections about George. In addition s/he revisits his/her own life experiences, where themes such as gender identiy, sexuality, loyalty, status and wealth are explored. The writing is allegorical, but complicated to dissect. As a re-telling of what happened to Francesco it lacks the rawness of George’s story and is perhaps more reflective in tone.

o you think Ali Smith loves her books?!

Book Discussion Questions on Ali Smith's How to be both

  • Ali Smith’s¬†How to be both¬†was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Boker Prize and the 2015 Folio Prize. It also won the 2014 Godsmiths Prize, the Novel Prize in the 2014 Costa Book Awards as well as the Women’s Prize for fiction. That is a lot of prizes! Why do you think the novel has been so successful?¬†
  • Ali Smith’s¬†How to be both¬†was pubished so that in one half of the copies George’s story came¬†first and in the other half¬†Francesco del Cossa‘s story came first. Which story would you rather begin with?
  • Which of the two narratives did you prefer and why?
  • George’s mother is a ‘subvert’ and creates plitically motivated art. She thinks that she is being spied upon by the British Intelligence Services and is probably being tailed by Lisa Goliard.¬† Discuss the type of people¬†that George’s parents are.
  • Why or why not is the¬†¬†leaking roof in George’s bedroom signficant?¬†
  • What would you ask Ali Smith if she was here with us now?¬†
  • What parallels can you drawn between Francesco del Cossa’s and George’s lives?
  • Do you think Del Cossa was right to ask for more money for his art?
  • Explore how the theme of androgeny is signifcant in¬†How to be both?¬†
  • Ali Smith’s writing is often said to be ‘experimental’. What does being ‘experimental mean?¬†
  • In what ways is¬†How to be both¬†a mystery?¬†
  • George is seeing a counsellor to help manage her emotions as she grieves for her mother? Do you think George’s counsellor adds positively to her life? How?¬†
  • George and her friend originally plan to use Francesco del Cossa’s story as a way of exploring sympathy and empathy. They then decide it would be too difficult. Some critics have interpreted del Cossa’s story as the school project actuated? Discuss whether you think this is a valid interpretation.¬†
  • Discuss what you enjoyed the most about Ali Smith’s¬†How to be both?¬†
  • What did you find most challenging about Ali Smith’s¬†How to be both?¬†
  • What is Ali Smith referring to when she suggests that we can be both?¬†
This is a challenging book so why not listen to this fascinating interview on How to be both by Ali Smith

Book Discussion Questions on Ali Smith's how to be both (if you haven't read the book!)

  • Amongst the themes that¬†How to be both¬†explores are memory and obsession. If you were writing a novel what key themes would you explore?¬†
  • How to be both¬†is narrated by a teenage girl and a renaissance artist of the 1460s. Having¬†not¬†read the book which is the¬†narrator you think you are most likely to enjoy reading? Why is this?¬†
  • George and her family love puns and¬†satire. George is obsessed with grammar and linguistics. Would you consider yourself a member of the ‘grammar police’? If so what language error do you find most annoying?¬† (I apologise¬†for the mistakes in ths post!)¬†
  • Ali Smith’s¬†How to be both¬†has won several prizes. Are you likely to more read an author if they have won literary prizes?¬†
  • Just curious – why didn’t you read Ali Smith’s¬†How to be both?¬†

Personal Response to Ali Smith's how to be both

When trying to encapsulate what How to be both is about it feels like I have hardly even scratched the surface. This book can be peeled layer after layer. In this way it makes me think of T. S. Eliot. (It’s difficult but worth it.) From the choice of the name George, to the lingering question of how much of  Francesco’s whole story is tied up with George’s school project to the choice of syntax there is an awful lot to explore. i In order for me to really enjoy How to be both I need to now re-read and discuss it with friends and colleagues who are smarter than me. Any takers? 

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