I finished Ali Smith’s How to Be Both on December 30th, just in time to land it on my top five favorites of 2014 list. If I hadn’t finished it until January I am certain it would be on my 2015 favorites list. It’s that good. I really loved this book which makes it hard to say anything about it because I just want to gush and squee and say things like, wasn’t that part where George and H held hands in George’s room wonderful? And George’s mother. What do you make of her? Smart for sure. Do you think she was really under surveillance? And who is Lisa? And what about del Cossa being a woman? How awesome is that? And all the art stuff? And all the different ways of “being both” the book mulls over. Oh, oh, and what about the minotaur and labyrinth stuff? And all the stuff about looking and being looked at? Seeing and being seen? Which beginning did you get? The one that begins with del Cossa or the one that starts with George? How do you think which beginning you got affects your experience of the book? Do you wish you could erase it from you mind just long enough to read it with the other beginning and then remember so you can compare?
Got all that? No? Let’s go for coffee and spend the afternoon talking about it. What do you say?
If you haven’t read the book you’ll have no idea why I am burbling on with all these questions and a big desire to chat about them. So, for those who haven’t read it, a little about the book with the hope it will be enough to get you to read it so you can come back and chat and toss out questions of your own.
The book is broken up into two sections, each titled “One.” One section begins with sixteen-year-old George (Georgia but everyone calls her George) on New Year’s Eve just a few months after her mother suddenly died. George’s story moves backward and forward. Backward with flashbacks to conversations with her mother and a trip to Italy they took earlier that year to look at some art and a fresco partially painted by Francescho del Cossa. Forward with her little brother, her father who is drowning his grief in alcohol, George’s new girlfriend H who becomes more than just a friend, and sessions with Mrs. Rock, George’s therapist.
Then there is the other section narrated by del Cossa’s ghost who is called back from the dead it seems by George spending so much time looking at one of del Cossa’s few surviving works. Del Cossa follows George around so George’s story progresses into the future beyond the end of George’s section. We also get del Cossa’s story. The painter turns out to be a woman who has been living disguised as first a boy and then a man since she was a young girl so she could learn painting and become a painter. Her time being the 1460’s she would not have made it as a painter unless everyone thought she was a man. Her father is the one who suggests this not long after her mother dies.
These two sections can be read in either order and in fact, half the books printed have George’s story first and half have del Cossa’s story first. Mine had George coming first. This might seem like some kind of gimmick, but there is a point to be made. What is the point? As George’s mother says:
But which came first? her mother says. The chicken or the egg? The picture underneath or the picture on the surface?
The picture below came first George says. Because it was done first.
But the first thing we see, her mother said, and most times the only thing we see, is the one on the surface. So does that mean it comes first after all?
Or, if you prefer, this is how del Cossa expresses it in her section:
how to tell a story, but tell it more than one way at once, and tell another underneath it up-rising through the skin of it
Whatever section you get first affects the way you see and experience the entire book. It’s like what George says about an element of a painting she and H are looking at:
It is both blatant and invisible. It is subtle and at the same time the most unsubtle thing in the world, so unsubtle it’s subtle. Once you’ve seen it, you can’t not see it.
Once you’ve read the book one way, you can’t unread it and read it a different way.
There is also much playfulness with language throughout the book, puns and words with more than one meaning and it made me want to play along.
In spite of the book being serious with a thick vein of grief running through it, Smith manages to create an overall effect of tenderness and resiliency, almost a lightheartedness. A beautiful book I will not soon forget. Please read it and come have coffee with me so we can talk about it.