How To Be Both

By Ali Smith
Genre: Literary Fiction
Buy Now This book is on reading list for February 2016

Discussion Questions

1. There are four epigraphs to the novel. The first one is by the artist Francesco del Cossa asking to be paid fairly for the frescoes he painted, and the third says that Vartan (female singer) saw the story of her life (last will and testament) written on a blank wall. What do they suggest to the reader before we even get to the first page? Are they opening our eyes to the idea that we all write our own stories and determine their value? And, if so, how does being an artist complicate his/her relationship with money?
2. In what ways does Ali Smith suggest that one “can be both”? Is she looking at gender identity? Sexual identity? Young and old? Dead and alive? Animal and human? Seer and Seen? These are some of the big questions of the novel that we need to address.
3. What is the transformative nature of viewing something (ie George looking at St Vincent, the porn, or Lisa Goliard looking at George’s mother)?
4. What is the function of mystery in the novel? When we think of mysteries we typically assume (or hope) there is a resolution. But, in George’s conversation with Mrs Rock, which I think is central to the novel, Mrs. Rock says, “The word mystery originally meant a closing, of the mouth or the eyes. It meant an agreement or an understanding that something would not be disclosed (62).”  Is How to be Both this kind of mystery? What kinds of things are disclosed and what remains hidden?
5. Do Francesca and George have the same voice? Are they two sisters across time?  And what is actually the meaning of time?
6. How is history defined in the novel? George says that it is “a mound of bodies pressing down into the ground below cities and towns in the unending wars and famines…its only redeeming feature being that it tends to be well and truly over (90). Is this the only point of view being conveyed?
7. Last, the concept of ‘Justice’ is a significant theme. How is it developed throughout the novel?
(Note that page numbers correspond to version of novel  with George’s story first.)


Be the first to comment on to “How To Be Both”

Join the Discussion