How to Be Both Beautiful and Flawed

I finished Ali Smith’s ‘How to be Both’ some time ago and I’ve been mulling it over ever since. After reading the rave reviews, I expected to be blown away, but while it’s certainly not lacking ambition, I was left thinking it was beautiful, but flawed.

If you haven’t heard anything else about the multiple award winning and Booker nominated novel, you’ll probably know that it is composed of two stand alone stories separated by centuries, connected by an artist’s work. The stories can be read in whichever order you choose. In my copy, the more recent story of a bereaved daughter’s search for truth about her mother, came before the tale of the Renaissance artist, so I read them in that order. Had I happened to pick up one of the editions printed with the alternative order, I’d have read them the other way round, so it really is random which way you end up reading it.

While discussing the book with a friend at the weekend, we wondered whether our less than convinced response to the novel was perhaps a result of the order in which we read the stories. I suppose it’s possible that the order could alter the sense and mood of the book. However, I personally think the problem is more to do with what I’m going to call the writer’s blind spot.

When you think about it, authors spend months – sometimes years, developing characters, carrying them round in their heads, ‘being them’ until they know how they would authentically respond in any given situation. Add to this each character’s back story, motivations, family dynamics, upbringing, and you have a richly elaborate fictional world from which the story emerges. The problem is, the author knows all this in full technicolour detail, but the reader doesn’t, and it is nigh on impossible for an author to read what they have written with fresh eyes, and to be able to judge clearly whether enough information has been included for the reader to grasp what they’re meant to. This is where I think a great editor can make the difference between a novel really succeeding or falling short. They have to be the intercessor between the all-seeing author and the reader who is totally in the dark.

While I think the idea of the two inter-connected stories is really interesting and highly innovative, I think that in ‘How to Be Both’, the amount of detail included connecting the two stories is just too sparse to fully realise that connection. That said, I’d still highly recommend reading it, as its construction is extraordinarily ambitious, and Smith’s intelligent evocative prose is, as ever, a delight.

Ali Smith, How to be Both

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