Ali Smith: Girl Meets Boy
When the first books from the Canongate Myths series were launched, I wasn’t too enamoured with the choices of Jeanette Winterson and Margaret Atwood, two authors that I’d read in some capacity and never truly enjoyed. Perhaps in expecting to dislike the books there could have been no outcome other than to dislike, which was what happened. And now, coming back to the series I found myself facing off against Ali Smith, yet another whose work I’ve sampled and found not for me. So, imagine my surprise when, expecting to dislike Girl Meets Boy (2007), I found there could be another outcome.
Like all other books in the Myths Series, Girl Meets Boy takes on the challenge of selecting a well known myth and, putting the author’s spin on it, updating it. Smith’s choice is that of Iphis from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, the only story we are told that, thanks to a helpful idiot’s guide halfway through, has – if, like me, you didn’t know – a happy ending.
Girl Meets Boy‘s first line (“Let me tell you about when I was a girl, our grandfather says.”) sets out its stall in foreshadowing that there’s some loose gender definitions here. This line is recalled by Anthea, who, along with her sister Imogen, narrate the story. Anthea is the younger of the two, looked after by Imogen in a house in Inverness, left to them by their grandparents. Imogen has even gone so far as to get her sister a job at Pure, a creative consultancy charged with creating a slogan for water, where water represents the imagination:
Water is history. Water is mystery. Water is nature. Water is life. Water is archaeology. Water is civilisation. Water is where we live. Water is here and water is now. Get the message. Get it in a bottle.
This is the cry of Keith, the sisters’ knuckle-dragging boss whose opinions belong in an age darker than the projection room he’s addressing. Anthea, however, isn’t one to bottle the imagination, as her walk to work that day illustrated:
I could, if I chose, just walk to the river. I could stand up and let myself fall the whole slant of the bank. I could just let the fast old river have me, toss myself in like a stone.
Not one to go with the flow, Anthea is quick to rebel from this corporate life when she spots a boy from the window painting a slogan about water being a human right:
He was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen in my life.
But he looked like a girl.
She was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen in my life.
The boy is indeed a girl, and Anthea finds herself romantically involved, much to the chagrin of her sister who, in her narrative sections, is constantly interrupted by her inner thoughts, conclealed in brackets:
(Oh my God my sister is A GAY.)
(I am not upset. I am not upset. I am not upset. I am not upset.)
The blame falls on their parents’ break up and the Spice Girls with Imogen comically gathering up all the clues that she should have noticed, such as liking the Eurovision Song Contest and Buffy The Vampire Slayer. And it’s this attitude that Smith takes on in her retelling of Iphus’ story, that in a time when single-sex relationships are accepted, it’s the attitude toward them that needs to change. Smith opts for chapter headings called ‘I’, ‘You’, ‘Us’, ‘Them’ and ‘All Together Now’ that ensure, in a book of reversals, that the happy ending remains unchanged.
While the slogans, thanks to their creative background, the girls go on to daub across the city seem like slapped on feminism, Smith’s prose throughout the book has a lightness to it that makes reading it a breeze, especially at its most playful, and when communicating its message of love:
She had the swagger of a girl. She blushed like a boy. She had a girl’s toughness. She had a boy’s gentleness. She was as meaty as a girl. She was as graceful as a boy. She was as brave and handsome and rough as a girl. She was as pretty and delicate and dainty as a boy. She turned boys’ heads like a girl. She turned girls’ heads like a boy. She made love like a boy. She made love like a girl. She was so boyish it was girlish, so girlish it was boyish, she made me want to rove the world writing our names on every tree.
And for a book that has fun written all over it, in literary allusions and puns aplenty, it proved to have one more reversal up its sleeve. Reader, I liked it.
July 20, 2008