In How to be both, the adolescent George comments, ‘if things really did happen simultaneously it’d be like reading a book but one in which all the lines of the text have been overprinted, like each page is actually two pages but with one superimposed on the other to make it unreadable.’ One wonders if Ali Smith ever quietly suggested this design to her publishers. She has crafted her own – legible – impression of time’s malleability by publishing two versions of How to be both. In one, the first half is narrated by Francesco del Cossa, the 15th-century Italian artist, while the second half concerns George, a girl living in modern-day Cambridge. In the other, the order of these two narratives is switched. As first-time readers, we must choose one way or the other.
George has suffered the recent death of her mother, Carol, an economist turned guerrilla political activist. She is left to share her wilting family home with her little brother, Henry, and her father, Nathan, who has turned to drink. The memory of her sparky, jovial mother which primarily occupies her