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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

13 responses to Ali Smith: Girl Meets Boy

  1. I’ve come to respect your taste in books quite a bit over the past couple of weeks, and without this review I might never have attempted to read another book by Ali Smith – I never got through the others I tried. But if I see this one hanging out on some bookshelf, I might pick it up. (However, I have enjoyed a few of the Atwood novels I’ve read: The Handmaid’s Tale and to a lesser extent Alias Grace, though not so much her “winner” The Blind Assassin.)

  2. Stewart said:

    Thanks Trevor. That’s a great complement, especially since my taste in books, to me, is all over the place, what with some of the latest stuff mixed in with more far out choices. Keeps it interesting, I suppose.

    As for Atwood, the book by hers that I had read in part was The Robber Bride. Definitely not for me, but I do hear her Oryx & Crake and The Handmaid’s Tale are well worth it. Maybe I’ll try her again in September, once the Booker is out of the way.

  3. Kirsty said:

    Hooray! You liked it! This is still in pole position for my favourite book of 08.

  4. Sarah said:

    I’ve shied away from reading anything by Ali Smith so this might be a good place to start.

    I’m a fan of Atwood but I find her work varies in quality- I’d recommend her novels The Handmaid’s Tale and Cat’s Eye or her short stories Moral Disorder if you want to be impressed.

  5. Stewart said:

    I make that two counts, now, for The Handmaid’s Tale, Sarah. Looks like I’ll have to investigate that one.

    In fact, in reference to Cat’s Eye: Jill Dawson’s Watch Me Disappear had two epigraphs, one from Nabokov’s Lolita and the other from Cat’s Eye. Since it had many parallels or references to Lolita, one wonders if – and how many – there were to Cat’s Eye.

  6. Ann said:

    I would have had exactly the same response as you based on my past experiences with Ali Smith. So, I too must out my prejudices aside and look this one out. Thanks for shaking up my prejudices!

  7. Stewart said:

    Not a problem, Ann. Hope you enjoy it.

  8. jem said:

    Glad to hear the Myths series offered you something you liked. I thought concept was great and loved the Winterson and Atwood (but I am fans of both authors) however the others fell a bit short for me (Grossman, McCall Smith) although the Pelevin was alright. I am hoping that the latest 3 (including the Smith) will be back to what I like.

  9. Stewart said:

    I, too, like the idea of the Myths Series but find that a number of those that have written them aren’t those I would choose to read. Winterson, Smith, and Atwood, as discussed; and McCall Smith is someone who I’ve tried and found wanting. Admittedly, it was the first in his Ladies Detective Agency series, so more of a set up for future novels, but it didn’t inspire, excite, or engage.

    I am, however, especially looking forward to Michel Faber’s forthcoming contribution: The Fire Gospel. Others that interest will be Chinua Achebe’s one and, when it gets translated, if it hasn’t been already, Klas Östergren’s The Hurricane Party.

  10. BookCrazy said:

    Based on your review, I picked the book last weekend. I cannot thank you enough.

    This is an absolutely amazing book, something that had the same effect as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird. There is no similarity in the two, just the effect is the same. Simple story, great insights, amazing punch; prose as if it was poetry. And to beat it all, compressed within 150 small pages. It was a delight.

  11. Stewart said:

    Wow! Glad to hear you enjoyed it so much, BookCrazy.

  12. I love your blog and the way you have it laid out. I enjoy searching the book reviews by subject or nationality or publisher (I may have to change our blog to include a similar format).

    I have nominated your blog for the Brillante Weblog Premio Award and look forward to discovering more great books to read thanks to you!

  13. Pingback: booklit

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13 responses to Ali Smith: Girl Meets Boy

  1. I’ve come to respect your taste in books quite a bit over the past couple of weeks, and without this review I might never have attempted to read another book by Ali Smith – I never got through the others I tried. But if I see this one hanging out on some bookshelf, I might pick it up. (However, I have enjoyed a few of the Atwood novels I’ve read: The Handmaid’s Tale and to a lesser extent Alias Grace, though not so much her “winner” The Blind Assassin.)

  2. Stewart said:

    Thanks Trevor. That’s a great complement, especially since my taste in books, to me, is all over the place, what with some of the latest stuff mixed in with more far out choices. Keeps it interesting, I suppose.

    As for Atwood, the book by hers that I had read in part was The Robber Bride. Definitely not for me, but I do hear her Oryx & Crake and The Handmaid’s Tale are well worth it. Maybe I’ll try her again in September, once the Booker is out of the way.

  3. Kirsty said:

    Hooray! You liked it! This is still in pole position for my favourite book of 08.

  4. Sarah said:

    I’ve shied away from reading anything by Ali Smith so this might be a good place to start.

    I’m a fan of Atwood but I find her work varies in quality- I’d recommend her novels The Handmaid’s Tale and Cat’s Eye or her short stories Moral Disorder if you want to be impressed.

  5. Stewart said:

    I make that two counts, now, for The Handmaid’s Tale, Sarah. Looks like I’ll have to investigate that one.

    In fact, in reference to Cat’s Eye: Jill Dawson’s Watch Me Disappear had two epigraphs, one from Nabokov’s Lolita and the other from Cat’s Eye. Since it had many parallels or references to Lolita, one wonders if – and how many – there were to Cat’s Eye.

  6. Ann said:

    I would have had exactly the same response as you based on my past experiences with Ali Smith. So, I too must out my prejudices aside and look this one out. Thanks for shaking up my prejudices!

  7. Stewart said:

    Not a problem, Ann. Hope you enjoy it.

  8. jem said:

    Glad to hear the Myths series offered you something you liked. I thought concept was great and loved the Winterson and Atwood (but I am fans of both authors) however the others fell a bit short for me (Grossman, McCall Smith) although the Pelevin was alright. I am hoping that the latest 3 (including the Smith) will be back to what I like.

  9. Stewart said:

    I, too, like the idea of the Myths Series but find that a number of those that have written them aren’t those I would choose to read. Winterson, Smith, and Atwood, as discussed; and McCall Smith is someone who I’ve tried and found wanting. Admittedly, it was the first in his Ladies Detective Agency series, so more of a set up for future novels, but it didn’t inspire, excite, or engage.

    I am, however, especially looking forward to Michel Faber’s forthcoming contribution: The Fire Gospel. Others that interest will be Chinua Achebe’s one and, when it gets translated, if it hasn’t been already, Klas Östergren’s The Hurricane Party.

  10. BookCrazy said:

    Based on your review, I picked the book last weekend. I cannot thank you enough.

    This is an absolutely amazing book, something that had the same effect as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird. There is no similarity in the two, just the effect is the same. Simple story, great insights, amazing punch; prose as if it was poetry. And to beat it all, compressed within 150 small pages. It was a delight.

  11. Stewart said:

    Wow! Glad to hear you enjoyed it so much, BookCrazy.

  12. I love your blog and the way you have it laid out. I enjoy searching the book reviews by subject or nationality or publisher (I may have to change our blog to include a similar format).

    I have nominated your blog for the Brillante Weblog Premio Award and look forward to discovering more great books to read thanks to you!

  13. Pingback: booklit

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