How to Be Both by Ali Smith

imageHow to Be Both is told in two parts. One part, entitled Camera, follows the story of Georgia in the aftermath of her mothers death as she reflects on a trip they made together to Italy to see a fresco by a virtually unknown Renaissance painter. The other part, entitled Eyes, is the story of Francesco Del Cossa, the virtually unknown painter of the fresco Georgia and her mother go to see.

The concept behind this book in interesting. It can be read in two ways, and was published as such. There is no first part or second part. You can either read it Camera – Eyes, or Eyes – Camera (I read it Camera – Eyes). Which order you read it in will of course influence your reading and understanding of the stories, as which ever section you read first will inevitably frame your understanding of the second section. The point is clear….a commentary on how we understand and perceive art, be it books, painting etc, as our perception is inevitably influenced by other factors.

I enjoyed both sections. Camera, the story of Georgia following the death of her mother is one we have heard before full of teenage angst and a motherless teenager mourning what she has lost and trying to understand the world without the guiding hand of her mother. Eyes, is a story I have read less often, for reasons I can’t be explicit about without a spoiler. It is probably the section I enjoyed the most.

However overall, despite my enjoyment of the sections in isolation, I can’t say its a book I loved. Its disappointing as it was a book which intrigued me and I was looking forward to reading. I never felt that spark, that compelling need to stop doing everything else and keep reading. I felt it was trying to hard to make its point…trying too hard to convey its message. The sections, while interesting, felt like elements of two individual stories which Smith just felt she couldn’t develop into full novels and so attempted to work together into this message heavy book. I would far prefer to have seen the two stories developed into individual novel.

As an exercise in creative writing it is an interesting book, and no doubt destined to be taught in universities to English students. The unusual structure no doubt accounts for the all the hype surrounding this book. However discounting this factor, as a book I would not be raving about it. There’ll be those who love it, but for me its over-hyped.

Rating: 3/5

P.S: In terms of reading order I would recommend Camera – Eyes. I believe the story makes more sense in this order.


4 thoughts on “How to Be Both by Ali Smith

  1. I read it the same way round and had exactly the same feeling as you. I really enjoyed the part about the painter but I couldn’t get into the part about George at all really. And like you I ended being a bit disappointed in this. I could see how clever it was and how well written but it just didn’t do it for me!

    Liked by 1 person

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