How to be Both by Ali Smith

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How to be Both by Ali Smith

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: Daringly experimental - it's a book you'll need to relax into to enjoy. It wasn't an easy read, but it was rewarding.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: August 2014
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
ISBN: 978-0241145210

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Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2014
Shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award 2014
WINNER of the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction 2015

There's something which you need to know about this book: if you decide to read it, the book you read might not be the same as the one which I've read and am about to review. There are, you see, two stories in each copy and half the books published will have the story of Francescho Del Cossa who worked in and around Ferrara in the fifteenth century, followed by the story of George - really Georgia - a teenager who lives with her father and younger brother in twentieth-century Cambridge. The other books will have the stories in reverse order. The stories are the same, but the experiences of the readers will be quite different.

I doubt that I would have picked this book up were it not for the fact that it's shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker prize. I'll confess too that I was nervous when I discovered that the book was inventive and playful as experience tells me that such books frequently leave me cold or with a feeling that I haven't quite understood the joke. Then there was the rather 'stream of consciousness' start to the Del Cossa novella, but strangely - and before many pages had been turned - I was completely drawn into the story. Del Cossa was female by birth and became a talented artist but her father knew that the only way for her to get the training and commissions which her talent demanded and deserved was for her to become a boy. S/he lived the life of a man and produced some stunning work.

When we first met del Cossa it was in the form of a spirit, gazing at one of his own paintings in a gallery. Between the spirit and the painting is a boy, although the spirit can only see his back. Later - much later - we'll find out that this 'boy' is George, who is actually a girl. George is grieving. She lost her mother recently and completely unexpectedly - it was an unfortunate reaction to antibiotics - and not long after her mother had whisked George and her brother Henry out of school to take them on a trip to Italy to see some art in Ferrara. George had been just a little bit bored by all the talk of frescoes (Henry hadn't even pretended - the iPad and earphones had come out) and upset by some of the points her mother made about the shootings which had gone on in the square where they sat. The talk had ranged through the fact that the painting underneath a fresco was often quite different to what was on top - and that events which had happened didn't cease to be just because they couldn't be seen. But they did see the three panels painted by del Cossa in the Room of the Months, although they could find out little about the man himself.

I suspect that I have failed to convey the joy of this book because that rests in Smith's writing. As you read del Cossa's story you feel as though you're in the midst of a romp, albeit an occasionally rather bawdy one and it's not until you are well into George's novella that you discover the depth of the interwoven tales. I'm grateful that I read the del Cossa story first but I can't help but be a little disappointed that there is no way that I can read George's story without knowing about del Cossa, without knowing, in fact, what George does not know.

As I'm writing How To Be Both is shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. Will it win? I think probably not (but given the reliability of my predictions that should give it an outstanding chance). I think it might be just a little too experimental, but it's an outstanding book which I'm delighted to have read.

We've reviews of other books on the 2014 shortlist here.

You might also enjoy Autumn by Ali Smith.

Booklists.jpg How to be Both by Ali Smith is in the Man Booker Prize 2014.

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Buy How to be Both by Ali Smith at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy How to be Both by Ali Smith at Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy How to be Both by Ali Smith at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy How to be Both by Ali Smith at

Booklists.jpg How to be Both by Ali Smith is in the Costa Book Awards 2014.


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