Monday, October 13, 2014

book review: How to Be Both by Ali Smith

The backstory: How to Be Both is on the 2014 Booker Prize short list. Update: It also won the 2015 Baileys Prize and was shortlisted for the 2015 Folio Prize.

The basics: How to Be Both is told in two parts, one from the point-of-view of George, a 16-year-old Cambridge (England) girl in current time, and the other from the spirit of Francesco del Cossa, a 15th century Italian artist. Which narrative you read first depends on the book; half the copies were printed with George's narrative first.

My thoughts: A few years ago, I read my first Ali Smith novel, There But For The (my review), when it was longlisted for the Orange Prize. I didn't love it, but I was impressed with Smith and her ideas, so I was eager to see what she would do next. Before starting this book, I did something I rarely do: I looked at a professional review (I usually think reviews give too much away.) I'm so glad I knew there are two orders in which to read this novel before I started (my copy had George's narrative second.) As a reader, I couldn't help contemplating how my reaction to this novel might be different depending on which version I read. It also made me pay attention to how the two narratives would overlap, which heightened the experience of reading (and made it a little easier.)

Because The Blazing World was also longlisted for this year's Booker Prize, at times I found myself comparing the two novels, as both have an unusual structure and examine issues of gender and art, albeit in very different ways. For me (and apparently the judges, as The Blazing World did not make the short list), Smith does both better. It's audacious to publish a book in two different orders. I'm partial to the order in which I read it, but I see how it could work well with George's story first. I imagine new layers would emerge on multiple readings, particularly if the reader opts to reverse the order for a second read (I'm particularly curious to know if the judges all read it in the same order the first time, as well as if they reverse orders for subsequent readings.)

Smith's prose is remarkably wise in its observations of both its fictional world and reality, and at time it's also humorous: "Is her mother really dead? Is it an elaborate hoax? (All hoaxes, on TV and the radio and in the papers and online, are described as elaborate whether they're elaborate or not.)" How to Be Both is that rare novel that feels longer than it is because Smith does so much with it. Despite how much I adored We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, I find myself hoping How to Be Both wins instead.

Favorite passage:  "In hell there is no mystery cause in mystery there is always hope."

The verdict: How to Be Both is utterly brilliant. It's inventive, provocative, and mind-bending. The prose is beautiful and smart. The characters are richly drawn. The historical sections are beautifully imagined. I'm rooting for it to win the Booker Prize because it's original, thought-provoking and emotionally affecting.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 384 pages
Publication date: December 2, 2014
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy How to Be Both from the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

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