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How To Be Both by Ali Smith

June 27, 2015

How_to_be_Both

This much-lauded, much-awarded book is the story of two souls connected through art. The book is divided into two parts. “Eyes” is the story of Francesco del Cossa, a real-life 15th Century Renaissance painter. “Camera” is the modern story of George, a 16-year-old girl who travels with her mother to Ferrara, Italy to see Francesco’s mural.

Triumph of Apollo and Sign of Gemini, ca 1470, by Francesco del Cossa (ca 1435-1477), fresco, east wall, Hall of Months, Palazzo Schifanoia, Ferrara, Emilia-Romagna. Detail. Italy, 15th century.

Triumph of Apollo and Sign of Gemini, ca 1470, by Francesco del Cossa (ca 1435-1477), fresco, east wall, Hall of Months, Palazzo Schifanoia, Ferrara, Emilia-Romagna. Detail. Italy, 15th century.

George’s trip to see the mural with her mother is told in flashback. Her mother has since passed away, and George is struggling to deal with her loss. As we get to know George and see her relationship with her mother, the loss becomes more significant and more painful for us too. It is a special relationship, and George is a very likeable character. It’s hard to not feel for her.

The novel was printed with the stories randomized—half the copies had “Eyes” first while the other half opened with “Camera.” Much has been made of this experiment. It seems a little gimmicky to me. I had “Camera” (George’s story) first but jumped ahead to start with “Eyes” (just because). I found “Camera” much more interesting. I was a little bored by “Eyes.” I’m not sure if the experience would have been radically different if I had read the book in the other order.

On the whole, the writing is strong. Smith writes with a playful, stream-of-consciousness style that is seldom overdone. I just wish both stories were equally strong.

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