Rachel Grate
June 06, 2015 6:00 am

If you’re like me — notorious for having way too many books on your reading list — I understand if you’re doubtful when I say that a book has to be moved to the very top of said list. But with How to Be Both by Ali Smith, it’s time to banish that doubt and embrace the warm (and slightly dangerous) arms of Amazon Instant Purchase, because this book deserves to be read ASAP.

Don’t just take my word for it. On Wednesday, the novel won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, which is kind of a big deal. About $46,000 big, if we’re talking numbers. (You might recognize it as the prestigious Orange Prize for Fiction, which was the name of the award until 2013.) And this is far from the first recognition How to Be Both has received; the novel was also a finalist for the Man Booker Prize.

The book is split into two parts, one about George, a modern 16-year-old English girl, and the other about Francescho del Cossa, a 15th-century Italian painter (who, fun fact, was a real historical artist). As different as those two protagonists may seem, there are surprising similarities between the two. First and foremost, each at first seems to be a guy, and by the time you realize they’re women you’re full-on questioning your assumptions about gender.

The book is hard to describe, partly because the experience of reading it changes depending on which version of the novel you have. The book was printed with the two halves in different orders, and which one you get is entirely based on chance. Think of it as a grown up choose-your-own-adventure.

The two halves are called “Eyes” (Francescho’s half) and “Camera” (George’s half), titles which reflect the novel’s focus on appearances and how they may be deceiving. After all, it’s not just the reader initially confused about the gender of the protagonists, that confusion is an integral part of the plot as well. Francescho binds her chest to pretend to be a man to get commission for her artwork, which is almost magically beautiful, and George is in the midst of discovering her sexual identity.

In “Camera,” we’re introduced to George, struggling to cope after the sudden death of her art- and feminism-obsessed mother leaves her with a flailing father. To cope, she begins a quest to find out all she can about the artwork her mother loved: Francescho’s artwork. In the process, she bonds with her half-Pakistani classmate Helena, who she begins to fall in love with.

Francescho’s section is poetic, but the stream-of-consciousness and jumps in time are definitely challenging. Pro-tip: If you start with George’s section, you’ll get some helpful chronological hints to understand Francescho’s. But it’s also fun to just go along with the adventure without all the details ironed out.

It’s not an easy read, but it’s so, so worth it. I guarantee you’ve never read a book like this. It’s not just unique, it’s beautiful and genuinely fun to get lost in. Not to mention, the novel is full of wisdom about feminism and breaking down binaries. As you piece together the pieces of these two girls lives, separated by time but united by so much more, you may just find yourself piecing together some of the mysteries in your own life.

“I’m good at the real and the true and the beautiful,” Francescho says in the novel. This novel is all of the above.

Advertisement