RAD Book Club review: How to be Both

17 Nov 2015

For our third meeting, RAD Book Club had read Ali Smith’s multi-award winning novel How to be Both.

We began by finding out which section of the book people had decided to read first. This was due to the novel being able to be read in two halves; ‘camera’ and ‘eye’. You can choose which section to start with, so it was an interesting way to open Book club! There seemed to be a fairly even divide of people choosing to read camera before eye and vice versa.

We then went on to discuss our overall impressions of the book. The majority of people felt that although the book was quite a tough read due to the need to adapt their normal reading style, they did enjoy it and some would consider rereading the bookafter our discussion.

Overall, the ‘eye’ section set in Italy in the 1460s seemed to be the most popular, as people enjoyed the social history within the section, as well as being given the context of paintings by Francesco. We liked how the paintings acted as subverted political messages which was mirrored in the modern-day camera’ section by George’s mother’s subversive political actions online.

An interesting point was noted regarding the use of ‘eye’ and ‘camera’ for section names as both are modes of observation. We discussed the idea of a first person narrative, ‘I’, being used in the ‘eye’ section, as well as the idea of us, the reader, being an observer, ‘watching’ George’s movements in the ‘camera’ section. Therefore, when George’s mother believes she is being spied upon, is that reference to the reader?

We also discussed the relevance of the image of two girls, one blonde and one brunette, found on the front cover of the novel. The image of blonde and brunette duo was highlighted in both ‘camera’ (George and H) and ‘eye’ (Francesco and her/his assistant). This then led us on to discuss the use of mirroring and duality within the novel.

Another key point considered the blurring of gender. In both sections of the text, there are particular sentences where the gender of the protagonist can be misinterpreted. For example, the use of a nickname ‘George’ throughout ‘camera’ leads the reader to initially believe that the protagonist is male. This is mirrored throughout ‘eye’ as Francesco, although female, has to pretend to be male in order to become a successful artist.

The group was intrigued by how Smith uses walls throughout the novel. We decided that walls are not only used in a literal sense such as Francesco’s father being a bricklayer, as a medium for frescos and as a place for George to sit, but also in the construction of emotional walls’ against the grief of losing a mother.

To end our discussion, we briefly addressed the title ‘How to be Both’ and how it seemed to be linked to the blurring of gender characteristics, and the idea of being both dead and alive at the same time.