I just finished Ali Smith’s 11th book, the Booker-shortlisted How To Be Both, and I keep asking myself, “How has this brilliant writer escaped my reading list?”
I’ve certainly been aware of Smith’s work since the queer mutterings around her first short story collection, Free Love, in 1995. I’ve even heard readers speak of her work with an enthusiasm usually reserved for writers such as Jeanette Winterson and Margaret Atwood.
Yes, Winterson and Atwood. This is the literary league of Ali Smith. Her writing is complex, masterful and poetic; it captures the beauty and mystery of existence as well as the banality and humour of the everyday.
How to Be Both is two novellas – one contemporary story of 16 year-old George whose world has been turned upside-down by the death of her mother and the other the story of a little-known renaissance painter, Francesco Del Cossa, reimagined as a woman. The two stories traverse art, history, time, gender, duality – and finally merge in an “Oh that’s what’s going on! … I think” way about two-thirds through. (There are dozens of reviews online that go into plot and themes if you need more detail.)
In addition to asking myself how on earth I’d lived without Ali Smith all my reading life, the other thought upon finishing the book was “I have to re-read it”. (So I’d read it and yet not read it – oh the layers of “being both”!). There is just so much here to savour.
How To Be Both is easily my favourite novel of the year (yes, even better than the new Sarah Waters) and its brilliance has reignited my passion for fiction. (David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks and Lauren Beukes’ Broken Monsters have suddenly gone back on my Must-Read-Now! list.)
Hoo-ray for Ali Smith