Van has finished reading…How To Be Both by Ali Smith

27 May

I scarcely know where to start with this. Reading Ali Smith is like literary acupuncture. There’s so much going on with the words and the story and the characters that I find myself going ‘oh’ every other minute because there’s something else that’s just brilliant about what’s on the page. It’s the kind of writing that makes me want at times to applaud.

There are two narratives in the book, woven together in a really inventive way. In the version I have it’s the voice of Francesco Del Cossa that comes first, though apparently you may pick up a copy with George’s narrative coming first instead. Such is Ali Smith’s ability that a dual narrative presents a challenge only when the story is written to stand being read in either order. For my part I think I’m glad I lucked on the story this way round. There’s a sheer playfulness about Francesco’s story (a playfulness that belies a certain amount of bitterness and also a deep remorse) that set me up for what was to come. Where playfulness is the watchword with Francesco, we’re in far darker territory with George. Ali Smith plays on the idea – or one might even suggest the myth – of duality really beautifully, time and again underlining the idea. Supposedly opposing states are examined and exposed, even to the notion of grief and optimism inhabiting the same space.

That makes it three times since September that George has laughed in an undeniable present tense.

These are currently my four favourite words in the English language: an undeniable present tense.


As I’ve comes to expect with Ali Smith, this is a book to revel in. There is such a sense of joy in the wielding of language I couldn’t help but smile even while my heart was breaking. The two stories complement wonderfully. The characters reveal themselves in everything they do and say. Even the level of research that likely went into this book is presented seamlessly. I suspect one could run a writing course on this text alone.

It’s wonderful. Read it.


How To Be Both was published by Penguin on 28 August 2014 ISBN:9780141025209

I didn’t find Ali Smith on Twitter. She’s obviously too busy writing fantastic books! (note to self: spend less time on Twitter).


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