Ali Smith. Girl Meets Boy. Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2007.
The Canongate Myths series encourages and organizes what writers have been doing for millennia: retelling myths. Some contributions of the series have become well-nigh canonical themselves—The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood’s feminist revision of the Odyssey, for example. Others have sparked controversy (as, rather predictably, Philip Pullman’s retelling of the life of Christ) or introduced myths that don’t have the advantages that Homer or Ovid confer (I’m thinking here of Dubravka Ugrešić’s Baba Yaga Laid an Egg).
Ali Smith’s retelling of the myth of Iphis and Ianthe is not the newest contribution to the series, but it remains a timely one. Iphis is a girl who should have been a boy; her father will not raise a daughter. So Iphis’ mother gives her child a gender-neutral name and raises her as a boy. When Iphis grows up, she and her best friend Ianthe fall in love and plan to marry. Isis visits Iphis, changes her into a man, and ensures that (s)he and Ianthe can live happily ever after as man and wife.
Iphis’ story is embedded within, and echoed by, Smith’s broader story of two very different sisters both living in Inverness and working for a bottled-water company, Pure, under a management whose motives are anything but. Anthea, the younger sister, is a dreamer and nonconformist who finds her direction in life when she meets and falls in love with Robin, an environmental and feminist activist who paints graffiti messages over the city under the tag ‘Iphis07.’ Smith’s descriptions of Anthea’s feelings for Robin are lyrical, with a beautifully apt nod to As You Like It:
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 so boyish it was girlish, so girlish it was boyish, she made me want to rove the world writing our names on every tree. I had simply never found anyone so right. (84)
Anthea and Robin’s relationship turns Anthea’s sister Imogen’s world upside down. Imogen has always been the good girl, taking on responsibilities after her parents disappear one by one. As an adult she is anorexic and self-effacing, her thoughts continually relegated to parenthetical comments overshadowed by the words of her casually misogynistic boss, Keith. Imogen struggles with homophobia: “(Oh my God my sister is A GAY.) (I am not upset. I am not upset. I am not upset. I am not upset.)” (49). She searches for a reason why her sister is the way she is, tries to interpret music and television preferences like oracles. She realizes she only knows slurs, and drunkenly asks Robin what the correct word for her is. Robin’s response is nothing short of perfect: “The proper word for me, Robin Goodman says, is me” (77).
In the end, it is not Anthea and Robin’s transformation into “Iphis and Ianthe the message girls 2007” (133) that is the heart of the story. It is Imogen’s journey out of parentheses and into main sentences as she comes to terms with her sister’s sexual orientation and political activism, and discovers that she has the strength to stand up to Keith. When I first read the novel, I wondered if this was a weakness, if Iphis and Ianthe had been subsumed within a different story, the Ovid-free story that Smith really wanted to write.
But of course, folding stories within stories is the most Ovidian thing Smith could have done.
Much as I enjoyed Girl Meets Boy, I found myself wishing it were a little more grounded. Many passages soar, but, like the sisters’ gender-bending grandfather, end up juxtaposed with the rest of the story rather than woven into it. By contrast, the message of conscientious activism against exploitation in all its forms is omnipresent, but omnipresent in such a way that the reader is left hopeful and full of intention, rather than browbeaten.
(Ought I to mention the Sappho epigram, egregiously misprinted in the first edition? Ought I to volunteer as Canongate’s consultant in polytonic Greek typography?)
(No, I oughtn’t. I am too pleased that the book begins with Sappho, Judith Butler, and Lyly.)