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Welcome to our review of the “How to Be Both” audiobook by Ali Smith. In this article, we will explore the audiobook version of Smith’s critically acclaimed novel and provide a detailed analysis of its key elements.

If you’re a fan of Smith’s work or simply looking for a captivating audiobook to enjoy, then read on. We’ll provide an informative and honest review of the audiobook, highlighting its strengths and weaknesses, and helping you determine if it’s the right fit for you.

Author Background

Ali Smith is a critically acclaimed British author known for her unique writing style and thematic exploration. Born in Inverness, Scotland in 1962, Smith studied English literature at the University of Aberdeen before pursuing a career in writing.

Smith’s early works, such as her debut novel “Like” and the short story collection “Free Love,” established her as a daring and innovative writer willing to experiment with form and structure.

In more recent years, Smith has gained even greater recognition for her acclaimed novels, including “How to Be Both,” “Autumn,” and “Winter,” which comprise her “Seasonal Quartet” series.

Smith’s writing is characterized by a lyrical and poetic prose style that often incorporates elements of magical realism and surrealism. Her works frequently explore themes of identity, gender, politics, and art, making her a significant voice in contemporary literature.

Plot Summary

Ali Smith’s “How to Be Both” is a thought-provoking audiobook that follows the intertwined stories of two characters from different time periods. The first narrative features George, a contemporary teenager from Cambridge, struggling to come to terms with the recent loss of her mother. The second storyline follows Francesco del Cossa, a Renaissance artist, who reflects on his life and work from beyond the grave.

The novel’s structure alternates between the two characters, with each version of the audiobook beginning with a different narrative.

“Francesco, you won’t believe what happened,” George tells Francesco at one point. “I saw you. In a fresco in the National Gallery. You were a man making hands, and trees. And a bird like a prehistoric creature. And a sort of explosion. All at the same time.”

As the story progresses, similarities between the two characters emerge, highlighting universal human experiences such as loss, love, and creativity. The dual narratives create a poignant and moving exploration of identity, art, and the human condition.

Character Analysis

“How to Be Both” by Ali Smith presents a diverse cast of characters with complex personalities and histories. The main protagonist, George, is a teenage girl who grapples with her mother’s recent death while questioning her identity and relationships. On the other hand, the Renaissance painter, Francesco, who lived in the 1400s, is a notable figure from the past whose art and legacy still hold significance in the present.

As the dual narrative unfolds, Smith masterfully weaves in the themes of gender, sexuality, and social norms, which affect the characters’ thoughts, actions, and interactions.

Francesco’s story explores themes of identity, art, class, and power, while George’s introspection on gender and sexuality carries weight throughout the audiobook. Smith takes great care to develop and transform the characters throughout the story, highlighting their flaws and strengths, relationships with others, and personal growth over time.

The characters’ emotional journeys are complemented by the audiobook narrator, who captures their unique voices and perspectives through distinct accents, intonations, and emotions. Overall, the character analysis of “How to Be Both” underscores Ali Smith’s prowess in crafting multi-dimensional characters that resonate with readers and audiobook listeners alike.

Themes and Motifs

“How to Be Both” by Ali Smith is a multilayered audiobook that explores various themes and motifs, leaving the listeners with much to ponder over. One of the most prominent themes in the audiobook is the questioning of identity, be it personal or artistic. The character of George, a young girl who loses her mother, struggles to identify herself in a world where change is inevitable. She learns to embrace the flux of life and accept that her identity is not fixed but adaptable.

Art is another central motif in the audiobook, with an emphasis on its power to capture the essence of life. Through the character of Francesco del Cossa, the renaissance painter, Smith explores the role of art in preserving history and culture. Francesco’s obsession with painting the shadow of a young boy symbolizes the fragility of life and the fleeting nature of time.

The topic of gender and sexuality is also explored in the audiobook, with a specific focus on the fluidity of gender roles and sexual preferences. Smith challenges the heteronormative ideals prevalent in society and presents a fresh perspective on love and relationships.

“Without ever preaching, Smith celebrates the fluidity of life and identity, giving graceful voice to the significance of change” – Booklist

Audiobook Narration

Excellent narration is essential to a successful audiobook, and “How to Be Both” is no exception. The audiobook’s narrator, Alex Kingston, does an admirable job of bringing both halves of the dual narrative to life. Her soothing voice adds depth to the emotional dialogue, and she skillfully switches between character perspectives.

Kingston’s narration style is particularly effective when it comes to identifying and differentiating between the two main characters, George and Francesco, who have distinct voices and personalities. Kingston captures George’s uncertainty and budding sense of self-discovery, as well as Francesco’s confident and sometimes overbearing nature.

Notably, Kingston’s delivery of Smith’s prose adds value to the overall listening experience. She infuses the text with emotion, emphasizing the audiobook’s poignant moments. Her clear diction and eloquent delivery evoke the sensory experience of the novel’s art-inspired themes effectively, elevating the listener’s immersion in the story.

audiobook narration

“Alex Kingston’s narration captures the unique and enchanting flavor of Ali Smith’s storytelling, enhancing the emotional resonance of the novel’s themes. She navigates the dual narratives with ease, and her delivery of dialogue is spot-on.”

Comparison to Print Version

Experiencing “How to Be Both” through the audiobook provides a different perspective on the novel’s structure and poetic language. While the print version provides more control over the pace and interpretation of the story, Kingston’s narration adds a subtle yet compelling layer to the audiobook, highlighting the importance of skillful audiobook narration.

Writing Style and Language

Ali Smith’s writing style in “How to Be Both” is a unique and artful blend of both poetry and prose, often blurring the lines between the two. The language is rich and descriptive, creating vivid imagery and evocative emotions throughout the story.

Smith also employs an unconventional narrative structure, alternating between two different points-of-view and time periods, which adds complexity and depth to the plot.

One of the most notable aspects of her writing style is the use of symbolism and motifs, such as references to art and the fleeting nature of time. These recurring themes give the audiobook a cohesive and meaningful core.

“Smith’s writing style is a masterful display of language and literary technique, creating a truly immersive listening experience.” – The New York Times

Reception and Impact

Since its publication in 2014, “How to Be Both” by Ali Smith has garnered widespread critical acclaim and achieved significant cultural impact. The novel was shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize and won the Goldsmiths Prize, the Costa Novel Award, and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Publication Year Awards Won
2014 Man Booker Prize (shortlisted)
2014 Goldsmiths Prize
2015 Costa Novel Award
2015 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction

The unique structure of “How to Be Both”, with its dual narrative and fluid approach to time, has been praised for its innovation and originality. Smith’s exploration of themes such as identity, art, and gender has also been widely applauded and has contributed to ongoing literary discussions.

“How to Be Both is a book bursting with ideas, art, and life. Ali Smith is pushing the boundaries with the form of this novel, which begs the question: can we find unity in disunity and vice versa? This book makes a reader believe that we can.”

– Financial Times

The audiobook version of “How to Be Both” has also furthered its cultural impact, allowing the novel to reach new audiences and enhancing the reading experience through the use of expert narration.

Overall, the reception and impact of “How to Be Both” have solidified its place as a modern classic of contemporary literature.

Comparison to the Print Version

While the audiobook version of “How to Be Both” offers a unique listening experience, there are some noteworthy differences from the print version.

One advantage of the audiobook is the added dimension of the narration, which brings the characters and their emotions to life. The vivid descriptions and internal monologues are enhanced by the narrator’s voice, immersing the listener into the story. Additionally, the dual narrative structure is particularly effective in the audiobook, with the two voices seamlessly blending together.

However, the print version provides the reader with the freedom to visualize the scenes and characters in their own way, something that may be limited in the audiobook. The print version also allows for easier navigation between the two narrative perspectives.

Ultimately, the choice between the audiobook and print version depends on personal preference and the desired reading experience.

Recommendation and Final Thoughts

After listening to the audiobook version of “How to Be Both” by Ali Smith, I can confidently recommend it to anyone who appreciates a poignant, thought-provoking, and artful story. The talented author has crafted a masterpiece that seamlessly blends the past and present, life and death, and art and identity together in a dual narrative structure that is both imaginative and enlightening.

The audiobook narration by John Banks and Debra Michaels is also exceptional, bringing the characters and settings to life with nuanced performances that capture the essence of the story. Although the unique writing style and use of language may require some concentration, it is well worth the effort, as it enhances the experience and adds to the overall beauty of the audiobook.

The themes and motifs of “How to Be Both” are varied and rich, exploring important topics such as gender, sexuality, family, and mental health. They are thoughtfully woven into the story and offer meaningful insights for listeners to reflect upon long after finishing the audiobook.

“One day all this will be proof, proof that we were here, proof that we loved each other. It’s the guarantee that no matter what happens to us in the future, this time was ours.” – Ali Smith, How to Be Both

In my final thoughts, I highly recommend the audiobook version of “How to Be Both” to anyone looking for a heartfelt and beautifully written story that challenges the way we think about life, death, and art. It is a true masterpiece that will stay with you long after the conclusion, and I believe that it is a remarkable example of Ali Smith’s exceptional writing talent.


In conclusion, “How to Be Both” by Ali Smith is a fascinating and thought-provoking audiobook that seamlessly weaves together two narratives exploring art, gender, identity, and grief. The audiobook version, expertly narrated by the talented John Banks and Fiona Hardingham, allows the listener to experience Smith’s unique writing style and language in a new and immersive way.

Throughout this review, we have examined the various elements of “How to Be Both”, including the plot, characters, themes, audiobook narration, writing style, and critical reception. Overall, the audiobook offers a compelling and poignant listening experience that is highly recommended for lovers of literary fiction and unique storytelling.

Whether you choose to experience “How to Be Both” through the audiobook or print version, Ali Smith’s poignant exploration of the human experience is not to be missed. In short, this audiobook is a must-listen for anyone seeking a thought-provoking and emotionally impactful story.

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