Menu Home

Book Chat – How to be Both by Ali Smith


This is an incredible novel full of wit and sarcasm with characters who are a touch arrogant and temperamental.
The novel is split into two parts. The first part follows young George, a girl who is grieving the loss of her mother. She is a fun character and asks a lot of questions that lead on wild tangents of more questions until she is back to the start. She is trying to figure out how to grieve properly while dealing with the possibility that her mother is being monitored by the government and feeling unsure whether to start a romantic relationship with her friend Helen. In this chapter, Smith perfects the messiness of being human and being pulled in different ways depending on emotions and moral stances.

George’s mother takes her to visit a painting whose painter is anonymous apart from his name and a letter stating he wanted paid more for his art. This artist and his work plays a large role in George’s chapter, influencing her relationship with her mother and friend.

Part two follows the artist of the painting who doesn’t know if he is alive or dead because he can’t remember dying. We learn about his life, how he became a great painter by drawing prostitutes rather than having sex with them and discover how the letter for more money came about. He is also watching George go about her life and we in turn find out more about her. Their lives weave in and out of each other and create a small parallel between events that happen to George and the painter although they are hundreds of years apart. In the George chapter we find out that there is no historical information about this painter, so it feels special and unique to find out about his life given that no one else knows anything about him.
This novel has hints of Oscar Wilde in it. Georges mother talks about loving the art for the beauty in it regardless of who created it, and yet the novel is a work of art itself. Smith uses punctuation differently or not at all, no speech marks and throughout the painter’s chapter the text is laid out on the page in a unique style creating an image. There is also a touch of Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth with both painters being smug, thinking their art is far better than anyone else’s and yet they have a way of charming you and getting under your skin all at once.
Smith has been able to create characters who you will actually care about. They are down to earth, charming, relatable and funny and it will leave you feeling like you’ve had a sneak peek into someone else’s life who no one else knows about. It is truly a stunning novel and one that I can’t wait to read again.

To purchase Ali’s book through Book Depository, please click HERE.



Categories: Book Review

Tagged as:


Bookstore Manager by day, reader and writer by night.
I enjoy:
reading books,
touching books,
stacking books,
writing books,
talking about books,
other people who work with books,
sniffing books and photographing books.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: