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Ali Smith: How to Be Both

Gender fluidity is becoming more fashionable but it is hardly new in literature. Virginia Woolf‘s Orlando is an obvious example, though Shakespeare was doing it many years before.

Having a book where the order is fluid is also not new. B S Johnson‘s The Unfortunates and Cortázar‘s Rayuela (Hopscotch) are just two examples. There are a few more here.

In this book, Smith tells two stories and she tells us that you can read either first. Indeed, when the book was first published, half were published in one order and half in the other.

Finally, before I get on to the book, this is by no means the first book to have a female called George as the protagonist. Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series featured a tomboy called George.

The first story (in the order I read the book) concerns the Italian painter Francesco del Cossa. (Smith calls him Francescho.) Del Cossa was a fifteenth century painter from Ferrara, best-known for his frescoes, painted with Cosimo Tura at the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara. The frescoes were hidden for many years and only fully revealed in the last century. We know that he complained about being badly paid by Borso d’Este (Smith calls him Borse), as he was paid by the square foot. Unable to negotiate a better deal, he left for Bologna, where he obtained various commissions.

We follow his story but, as little is known of him, quite a lot is left to Smith’s imagination, including his sexuality, which becomes key. We see him as a child, with his father a bricklayer, guiding him. We meet his friend Barto who wishes to be more than just a friend. We see him visiting prostitutes where he paints them rather than doing anything else. We see him developing as a painter under the influence of Alberti. However, there is no doubt in my mind that this is the weakest part of the book, the issues with his sexuality and his pay being key.

The second and far superior part is about a sixteen year old girl called George (actually Georgia). At the start of the section, her mother has died but we get a lot of back story relating to George and her mother, Carol. Her obituary described her as an economist, journalist and Internet guerrilla. The Internet guerrilla bit refers to an group she belonged to who used to do something akin to what is known as Google bombing. In their case, when you searched for certain words, you would get a political statement. It was known as Subvert.

Getting the homosexuality bit out of the way first… George thinks her younger brother, Henry, is gay and both she and her mother have a (different) female friend with the relationship flirting with lesbianism.

George is pedantic and down-to-earth. Her mother is neither so there is a certain amount of mother-daughter clash. One time where we do see Carol’s impetuousness is when we she sees a painting in a magazine and immediately plans to go off to Italy to see them, taking the children out of school. They are, of course, the paintings of Francesco del Cossa and they talk about his paintings and his money issues. We also learn about her mother’s friends, Lisa Goliard, whom she accidentally met at a bank ATM and who may actually be spying on Carol (for MI5?)

But we also learn about George and Henry after their mother’s death. Their father starts drinking heavily while they struggle with the loss of their mother. George goes into therapy with Mrs Rock (yes, the obvious jokes are made about her name). George, who struggles at school anyway as she is not part of the in set, struggles more till she and Helena become friends. And, of course, we have some cross-dressing with the school production of As You Like It.

If my review seems a bit rambling that is because the book is a bit rambling. The title and the book are clearly trying to make a point that both homosexuality and heterosexuality are OK, that gender-fluidity is OK and that cross-dressing is OK. This is reinforced with the order of the two stories being interchangeable.

The story of del Cossa is a bit weak, a bit Wikipedia, a bit going on about the money and gender identity. The story of George is more enjoyable, not least because George and her mother are far more interesting characters. The both issue is clearly important to Smith but may well be less so to the reader. Overall it is not a bad book because of the George part but certainly not her best.

Publishing history

First published 2014 by Hamish Hamilton