Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Girl Meets Boy

By Ali Smith
Reviewed by Jodie

‘Girl Meets Boy’ is part of the Canongate myths series, where modern authors base their stories on myths from many cultures. Ali Smith’s story is an innovative reimagining of part of Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’. The original is the myth of Iphis, a girl raised as a boy to protect her from her father’s practicality. Her father thinks girls a burden and says they will have to get rid of any girl child born. His wife pleads with the goddess Venus to help her save her child and Venus tells her to simply raise it as a boy whatever gender it is born. The child is a girl but Venus’ solution works well until Iphis’ father arranges a marriage with the lovely Ianthe. The couple falls in love but on the wedding day Iphis can not be happy as she “would never really enjoy her bride”. She asks the gods why they have made her this way and Venus takes pity on Iphis by changing her into a man.

Ali Smith has joyously taken all the main ingredients of the original story and mixed them up into a delicious modern blend. She changes the story to address any problems a modern mind might encounter with the original, for example the idea that one woman can not properly “enjoy” another, but keeps the spirit of the tale. The book begins with some classic Greek word trickery, “Let me tell you about when I was a girl, our grandfather says.” . Anthea and Imogen’s grandfather tells them the story of when he was a young girl activist, beginning a book that gently plays with and reverses all established ideas about gender. This is done both by deliberate statements such as:

“He looked smooth, sweet faced, almost girlish. She looked strong, clear-boned, like a smiling young man from some Second World War film had climbed inside an older skin.”

...and by subtle inserted details like Anthea’s grandmother watching the football results.

Anthea meets Robin, a female activist, who Anthea describes as “the most beautiful boy I had ever seen in my life”. The love story between them is attended to with caring detail and the reader is drawn into their love quickly through the voice of Anthea’s sister Imogen who is shocked at finding her sister gay and afraid of its consequences but also fascinated by the intimacy her sister has found. The easy way in which the Anthea falls in love and the quiet tone in which she describes their lovemaking suggests that there are no big issues to be argued about in this relationship. Falling in love with a woman is just like falling in love with a man, there is no need to decide to love women, it just happens and then you’re in love. Their relationship is a rare, wonderful realisation of a writer transcending gender clichés, which the author does by avoiding writing about the relationship in terms of gender.

The book is full of Smith’s contempt for crass modernity and commercialism but it is presented in a softer way than in a previous books; she does not give up on her main characters here as she does in ‘The Accidental’. She makes Imogen a willing employee of Pure, the source of materialistic evil in this book, but allows her to redeem herself by stepping away from the company and opening herself honestly to another person. The anger Smith feels at modern apathy and avoidance is now expressed in less of an impotent fury and instead takes a constructive, instructing form. She uses the end of her story to impart straightforward messages about women’s inequality in attempt to educate the world. She does this is the guise of her characters spreading the word to their Scottish town by spray-painting messages in public places, a conceit which works well.

The story incorporates the feeling of a written myth in the poetic retelling of the original Iphis myth and the magical description of a fantasy wedding ceremony where gods mix with mortals. Smith also incorporates the oral way myths would have been told by including a second retelling of the myth by Robin where Anthea interrupts and the story is diverted to other topics. This disordered, embroidery of telling is no less beautiful that the narrative style story that precedes it. The mythical wedding is looked at again, showing how Anthea and Robin really married and again this is as elegant and evocative as the fancy that Anthea constructed:

“What I mean is, we stood on the bank of the river, under the trees, the pair of us, and we promised the nothing that was there, the nothing that made us, the nothing that was listening, that we truly desired to go beyond ourselves.”

Smith’s creativity in presenting this myth is one of the highlights of the myths series so far.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I recently read the novel, without having any idea that it is a part of some publisher's 'myth series'. As a story of its own, it is one of the most beautiful ones I have read. I have no idea about the original Metamorphoses and therefore am not competent to comment in that respect.

Whatever I know about the plot of the original, as described within this story, I guess the book could well have been written without being a part of it. Whether that is good for the series or not, it is great for literature, am sure.

Too minute an inspection of any art will leave you with just some dots of single colours. Rainbows are beautiful only in its entirety. The book has a story of its own and character of its own. Whether it is convincing in one respect or not should not matter. What should matter is the author's story. And the hidden tid-bits.

Everyone talks of the gender and sexual aspects of this book. I am disappointed no one sees the part where throwing stones in a river is made aesthetic and worth it despite getting late for work.

The beauty of the book lies in its author. Specially of this one. It is a simple story told in a way a painter paints his masterpiece. Punches are delivered, softly but even more effective, with a smile that defies the force of the punch. This is, after ages, literature one would like to get lost in. Last one I read which had a similar effect was Harper Lee.