How to be Both by Ali Smith – Two views of life, time, art and so much more

How to be Both by Ali Smith

Two stories, two points of view, two ways of looking at life in different times. This is a 2014 novel that has much to say about so many subjects, and famously switched the order of the halves in different copies. The copy I tackled had the 1460s section first, before the near contemporary section. Thus mine was in chronological order, but everything else was flexible. The 1460s section is a sort of stream of consciousness story of a painter, who is brought up to make the bricks that construct the buildings around them, but learns of the way they can be painted, can be used to capture something of a person, an angel, a creature. Not that it is easy; paints cost money or at least the colours to make them, and not every one appreciates their value, their true cost to a painter. “Cause that’s all the life of a painter is, the seen and gone disappearing into the air, rain seasons, years, the ravenous beaks of the ravens. All we are is eyes looking for the unbroken or the edges where the broken bits might fit each other.” The painter looks back on their life, not knowing the end or the beginning of it, recognizing people, places, paintings, emotions and so much more. The glimpse of a woman, the walls around them, the way that life and paint could flow. The episode where the painter is asked to paint walls in a palace, to capture gods, angels and people to avoid a boring blank space, and the vital question of whether someone who paints better should be paid more. This is a vivid insight into a world of art and uncertainty, and so much more.

The second half of the book in my edition features a teenager called George. It often features dialogue written to tell the story. It is a script – like construction, with digressions into George’s though or descriptions. This is appropriate in a way; George’s late mother is the main character and she was an avid internet user who created “Subverts”, small pieces that would pop up with slogans challenging the status quo, often based on art subjects. George has pictures, a tiny bit of film, and so many memories of unusual conversations with her mother, who challenged so many assertions made by her thoughtful teenager. Impulsive and brilliant, George’s mother tried to get George to think, to appreciate art, to think about her attitudes. George tries to recreate her dancing, her language, her concerns, but is aware that essentially her mother has gone. A big adventure is to see a piece of work, paintings, that depict strange challenging figures, non specific in their way, along with the moral question as whether an artist should be paid more if the paintings are better. “Is it me or is it the work that’s worth more? George says”. There are so many points to think about, some specific to George, some questions that are for the reader to think about, overall a touching portrait of a young woman trying to reconcile death, art and so many other questions.

This is an unusual and thought provoking book which challenges the reader throughout, not just in terms of format but also in terms of content, as both sections ask so many questions. Time, chronology and so much more is a slippery concept in this book. It is a memorable and intense book, a real triumph of the novel to challenge every boundary, and to create real reactions in every reader.