Girl Meets Boy

Being in the presence of creativity – real, playful, enchanting, shape-shifting, thought-changing creativity – is extraordinarily uplifting. It’s the experience that we’re always seeking for in the arts, but often it exists in watered-down form. Yet another story about a love affair that goes wrong, or a family with problems or a crime novel in which a depressed detective drinks his way through a case; such novels are read because they promise something we know all about already, encased in a pleasing form. That’s fine, that’s good, sometimes that’s just what readers want. But every now and then, a book leaps out at you that is profoundly creative, that manages to do something very fresh and innovative in a way that leaves you feeling charged full of hope. Because real creativity, the ability to take something old, worn, constricted and shake it out, fill it with light, make it new again, has that enviable power.

On the weekend, I read Ali Smith’s wonderfully creative novella, Girl Meets Boy, and was dazzled and charmed in equal measure. It’s part of the Canongate myth series, in which contemporary authors have been invited to rewrite myths – Margaret Atwood did The Penelopiad, Salley Vickers rewrote Oedipus in Where Three Roads Meet. Ali Smith takes the love story of Iphis and Ianthe from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and uses it as a springboard for a short, wise, beautifully structured story about love, social responsibility and change. It’s good material in the first place – as opposed to all the more gory and disastrous metamorphoses that Ovid recounts  (the fact that Ted Hughes chose Ovid for a collection of poems should tell you something), the story of Iphis is an optimistic winner. Iphis is born a girl to a family who cannot afford one, and so her mother brings her up as a boy. She falls in love with her childhood friend, Ianthe and the pair are engaged to be married, only Iphis and her mother are inevitably concerned as to how this marriage might turn out. So the mother goes to the temple to pray to the goddess Isis, who promises to make things right, and Iphis is transformed, just in time, into a boy. The myth lies at the heart of Smith’s novel, nestled into its center and recounted in witty and amusing form. But the story she tells is far more playful in its gender bending and far more serious in its message about transformation.

Girl Meets Boy is the story of two sisters, Anthea, the younger, subversive, fearless one, and Midge (Imogen) the older, conventional, terrified one. We first meet them as children, being told parables and fantasies by their entertaining grandfather. But the grandparents buy themselves a boat and sail off around the world never to be seen again. Anthea and Midge grow up and return to live in their grandparent’s house in Scotland and to work together on the Pure creative team, for an unscrupulous firm who sell bottled water but who are stealthily planning world domination. Anthea lasts all of a day or so there; before one excruciating executive meeting is over (hilariously satirized), she has experienced a coup de foudre and fallen in love with the young woman painting protest slogans over the company sign. This woman, Robin, is one of Ali Smith’s classic catalyst figures; preternaturally wise, almost other-worldly, and yet loving, warm, right-thinking, funny. She enters the sister’s lives and sets them on a path of transformation. The love scenes between Robin and Anthea are some of the loveliest and most moving I’ve read, and the sheer power of Smith’s writing seems to propel the narrative forward so that love becomes the driving force for the strange and wonderful events that happen subsequently.

Robin is also a powerful voice for justice and equality, and the novel manages to bring together in satisfying ways the love we feel for individuals and the ethical responsibility we have towards other people. Smith has two particular targets in her sight; homophobia and unscrupulous corporate dealings, and she manages to score direct hits to each with the lightest of all possible arrows. For instance, here’s the moment when the scales drop from Midge’s eyes about her boss, Keith, after she has been asked to write untruthful copy:

And I can’t make up rubbish and pretend it’s true. Those people in India. That water is their right.

Not so, my little Scotty dog, Keith says. According to the World Water Forum 2000, whose subject was water’s exact designation, water is not a human right. Water is a human need. And that means we can market it. We can sell a need. It’s our
human right to.

Keith, that’s ridiculous, I say. Those words you just used are all in the wrong places

One of the reasons why I loved this novella so was the unbridled wittiness of the narrative. The sisters take it in turns to narrate and their voices move through a range of different tones; lyrical, satirical, anxiety-ridden, fantastic, explanatory, but always humour unites them all. Perhaps that’s the most creative aspect of this delightful book; the amazing trick of convergence it accomplishes between such disparate elements – myth-making and corporate shenanigans, the dourness of Inverness and the sunshiny places of love, the transformation of two dispossessed sisters and civil rights protests. The ability to bring these fragments of modern life together and illuminate what’s still right and wrong about our world makes me think of Eliot, but he was never quite so funny. Nor was he so joyful. There’s a particularly lovely ending to this story and whilst I may have shed a few tears, they were certainly happy ones. ‘It’s what we do with the myths we grow up with that counts,’ the wise Robin says, and in this tale, the myths are both personal and cultural, and the metamorphoses that Ali Smith urges are both individual and global. I can only think that somewhere, somehow, Ovid is applauding.

p.s. I am sure wordpress is about to screw up the formatting of the quote. It simply refuses to accept such a thing as an indent. Grrr. Silly wordpress.  Many apologies, folks.


19 thoughts on “Girl Meets Boy

  1. I loved “Boy Meets Girl.” Thank you for conveying with such eloquence just what was so good about it! I’m a huge fan of Ali Smith’s work, but generally more so of her short stories than her novels. “Boy Meets Girl” seems to bridge the gap between the forms nicely though. Smith makes good use of the space but the end result still has the punch of her best short stories.

  2. I wish I had written this post; it perfectly describes how I felt about this lovely book when I read it a couple years ago. Especially the feeling of it being propelled by love. Such a beautiful narrative!

  3. Oh, this sounds marvelous! You make me want to run out and read it right now. Perhaps since it is short it will make a good commuting book, expect I will have to be sure to read the end at home. Wouldn’t want to cry on the bus!

  4. Another Must Read for me; I loved Atwood’s Penelopiad, but have not seen the other two (not really surprising, on this side of the pond). Must look harder. Wonderful review–thank you!

  5. Great review. I have this on my TBR list but I think it just got bumped up a few places. Playful and uplifting sound pretty good right now.

  6. I so love your reviews. I’ll be sure to reference this post for WHEN I ever get around to reading this (who knows – maybe next week or next decade?) because I might miss all the mythology you explain so well. Thanks!

  7. I’ll have to add this to my (exponentially expanding) reading list. Sounds like it’s right up my alley. The original story also sounds a lot like the plot of the story Yentl the Yeshiva Boy , which was of course made into that terrible movie.

  8. I tend to read lots of stories that are familiar, but I do love to come across something unconventional and creative (something I probably don’t look for often enough). I’ve read the Atwood book in this series, so will have to look for Ali Smith’s book,too.

  9. Kate – I’m a big fan too but have read more novels than short stories. I’d like to reread The Accidental, which I remember loving. The collection titles of the short stories are just so cool that they make you want to buy the books without even knowing what they’re about!

    Nicole – thank you! Some writers are really inspiring to write about, I think, and Ali Smith is certainly one of them. And thank you for dropping by again. I want to add you to my blogroll but am shockingly bad at remembering that kind of task!

    Stefanie – lol! I understand. I wouldn’t want to cry on the bus either. But you are more likely to spend most of your time chuckling! I can see you appreciating this book, too.

    ds – I do wonder whether these kinds of books make it to the US – they should. It’s a fabulous series. I would love to know what you think of this if you can get hold of it.

    Pete – it’s true, I rarely turn down playful and uplifting myself! And Ali Smith writes just so brilliantly about the best parts of being in love. There is much to recommend it.

    Care – bless you! You are such a sweetie. I would love to know what you think of it, when you get around to reading it, and I’ll be ready to read your review next week or next decade, just whenever. 🙂

    David – lol! There now, and I haven’t thought of Barbra Streisand in Yentl for a long, long time. This is undeniably the kind of book you want to take to a writing group and say, see now, THAT’s how you do it.

    Grad – I feel for your wallet, I really do! It’s been out a while now, so I would think there is every chance the library carries it. Would love to hear what you think of it if you do get hold of a copy.

    Danielle – I can see you liking Ali Smith. She is such a wise, funny writer and she knows how to show a reader a good time. This is the kind of novel I would recommend to anyone who wanted to read postmodern or experimental work and didn’t know where to begin. I didn’t use those words in the review as they sound scary, and this is such an accessible, easy reading book. Would love to know what you think of it – although I do know you have one or two books to read already over there. 😉

    Lilian – I would love to know what you think of this – it has wonderful touches of magic that I do think might appeal to you.

  10. What a lovely review, Litlove, and this book seems like exactly the thing I’d like to read this summer. I’m getting all my suggestions from you at the moment (The Morville Hours is on its way!) so thank you 🙂

  11. I can definitely verify that the Myths series is available in the US, though each book tends to become available about 6 months after it comes out in the UK. I was extremely faithful to the series up until I didn’t quite hit it off with Salley Vickers’s contribution, so I haven’t picked up the Michel Faber yet even though I did order it right away. I think my favorites so far have been The Penelopiad, Girl Meets Boy, Dream Angus (Alexander McCall Smith) and Binu and the Great Wall (Su Tong). Hm and I liked Weight (Jeanette Winterson) a lot too. So that’s practically the whole series!

  12. Verbivore – I’ve had a very good patch lately! Here’s hoping it continues. 🙂

    Nicole – thank you for that – that’s very useful to know. And you remind me that there are several still in the series that I have yet to read. I must do something about that!

  13. It sounds delightful. I loved The Penelopiad, and I’m a big Ali Smith fan, so thanks to you my eyes have been opened to something I NEED to read. Thanks for providing a service to your loyal German readership.

  14. This book sounds really wonderful! I love what you say about creativity and how exciting it is. It reminds me of the way good books make me feel so energized and they make me want to go out and create something myself. That’s surely a sign of genuine creativity, isn’t it? I’ve never read Smith, but I’d like to, so thanks for the review.

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