By Julia McGehean
I am always interested in reading books by authors who have an outside-of-the-box approach to writing. The kind who radically shake up the rules in a way that pushes my understanding of what a story can be into new territory. As soon as I picked up Ali Smith’s novel How to Be Both for the first time, I was immediately struck by her intriguing ability to format a novel in a way that I had never experienced before.
Beginning on the first page, it became evident that this Man Booker Prize shortlist finalist is highly ingenuitive and eloquently executed. There is a note in the very beginning explaining that the novel is broken up into two interchangeable sections. It is then up to the audience to decide which order to read first. Half of the books are published with George’s story as the first half, while the remaining copies begin with Francesco. If you prefer a strong personal narrative, I would suggest beginning with George’s half, a spunky 16-year-old coping with the sudden death of her mother. If you enjoy a historical mystery, begin with Francesco, a bold fifteenth-century Italian fresco painter navigating the afterlife.
As a result of the twists and turns driven by a non-linear plot design, How to Be Both is tricky to describe without spoiling the mystery and marvel of it all. Main themes that are highlighted within the dueling narratives of Smith’s novel include the timeless importance of art and the artist in society, an honest interpretation of loss including the grief that follows, as well as the open exploration of gender and sexuality. With one half of the story set mainly in contemporary England, and the other in historic Italy, the main characters are separated by hundreds of years in two seemingly disparate worlds. As the pieces slowly come together in whatever order you choose to read, it becomes evident that their lives have been so cleverly intertwined without the reader initially having any idea how or why.
How to Be Both is located in the Greenfield Library, call number PR 6069 .M4213 H69 2015.
Looking forward to your thoughts,
Julia McGehean, Greenfield Library Circulation Assistant