“It’s a novel you have to read one-and-a-half times” – Dr Carol Jones

Susan talks with Dr Eve Patten and Dr Carol Jones about Ali Smith’s literary career and her latest novel, “How to be Both”

“It’s a novel you have to read one-and-a-half times” – Dr Carol Jones

"Allegory of March – Triumph of Minerva and sign of Aries" by Francesco del Cossa, between 1476 and 1484

Published in 2014 Ali Smith’s How to be Both became one of the most celebrated novels of the year, picking up numerous awards and nominations. Most remarkably it managed to achieve both critical and commercial success despite being a very modernist work. Building on Smith’s status as one of the best British writers working today How to be Both makes the case that there is still space for challenging books.

According to Professor Eve Patten, “if you pick up an Ali Smith novel you’ve got to be ready to tackle it”. How to be Both is no exception to this. Telling two stories, hundreds of years apart, the novel explores what it is like to be a young girl overcoming grief today as well as an artist growing up and living during the great Renaissance.

George, our contemporary heroine already suffering the regular tribulations of growing up, is the victim of sudden loss as her mother, Carol, succumbs to a severe allergic reaction. Smith brings us through her narrative as she attempts to come to grips with this unfamiliar and often overwhelming grief.

Testament to her skills as a novelist Smith’s George is a character that always feels very real. Her sadness, anger, and bouts of joy are palpable as she tries to process how and why her mother is, so suddenly and irrevocably, gone. Central to George’s processing of this loss, and the book in general, are Francesco del Cossa’s Ferrara frescoes.

On display in the Palazzo Schifanoia these paintings are one of the last shared experiences George has with her mother. Dismissing history off-hand George is challenged by her mother: “Do things that happened not exist, or stop existing, just because we can't see them happening in front of us?” This reflection becomes all too real for George with her mother’s death a few short months later.

The other half of How to be Both, the first or second depending on which printing your copy came from, is told from the perspective of the artist Francesco del Cossa.

An imagined biography of a very real historical figure del Cossa’s half of the book is a narrative of her life. Smith introducing the dramatic twist that del Cossa is a girl who plays the role of boy, and later man, in the wake of her own mother’s death.

Done to better her chances in a male dominated world del Cossa’s complex gender identity explores the increasingly topical subject of gender and sexuality. Finding reflection in George and her story Smith uses del Cossa to explore the real limits, restrictions, and implications of gender.

Though fantastically written, with seamless dialogue and relatable characters, one of the distinguishing characteristics of How to be Both is in its layout. Though both halves are intrinsically tied together they are distinctly split in their narratives. The order in which you read them, though, is dictated by which order they come in your copy.

This has a profound impact on the story.

Does del Cossa’s story come first? Are her story and paintings taking form independently of George yet impacting so heavily on her life and grief? Or is it George’s experiences that come first? What impact does this have on del Cossa’s life? Might her narrative be a reaction to George’s loss and life?

Though How to be Both might sometimes prove a challenging read it is a worthwhile one. As Professor Patten was quick to point out, “at the heart of [an Ali Smith novel] there are always human relationships and there is always a story”.

Join Talking Books’ host Susan Cahill as she talks with Dr Carol Jones and Dr Eve Patten about the literary career of Ali Smith, her unique and brilliant writing style, and How to be Both.

In the second part of the show Susan talks with Professor Mark Philp, the editor of Oxford's new edition of John Stuart Mill On Liberty, Utilitarianism and Other Essays, about John Stuart Mill's life, his philosophies, and why his lessons and thoughts are still so relevant today.

This week's music to read to

The music for this comes from Max Richter's album "From Sleep". The show opens with Path 5 before playing out of part one with Dream 13. The show ends with Dream 8.