Ali Smith wrote Girl Meets Boy more than ten years ago, in 2007, and it was my first introduction to her writing, again thanks to Canongate Books. A rewriting of one of Ovid’s most joyful metamorphosis, Girl Meets Boy adds to this mythological story a modern perspective which gives yet another depth to the myth of Iphis and Ianthe.
For the record, Iphis and Ianthe is a myth touching on homosexuality. Iphis’ father had declared to his pregnant wife that, should their baby be a girl, he would have to kill her because he could not afford a girl (a story as old as the world, apparently). Iphis’ mother went to the Goddess Isis to ask for help and Isis said she would be here the day her child would need it. To cut a long story short, Iphis, of course, was born a daughter and given this conveniently androgynous name, lived her whole life disguised as a boy (only her and her mother new the truth) and fell in love with her class schoolmate, Ianthe. The day of their marriage, Iphis was desperate because she felt she would not be able to satisfy her wife and they would both be ridiculed by the whole village but Isis, true to her promise, appeared and transformed Iphis into a nice suitable boy (Ianthe never knew that she first loved a woman, but that’s another story, yet to be told, as far as I know).
Now, what does Ali Smith make of this myth? A multi-layered rewriting, echoing other distinguished literary voices, set in our modern times, its tone at times lyrical, at times modernist, at times radically modern, a writing always passionate. No punctuation marks to indicate who is talking, when the dialogues begin and end. The narrative flows like water and conventional punctuation marks are not here to help you find your bearings in this fluid story.
Everything in Girl Meets Boy is about fluidity and the absence of clear marks between dialogues and narrative is the first sign that Ali Smith sends you to warn you that you are going to have to let go of some of the norms you usually cling to. Even more striking is the disconcerting use of brackets, in the second part of the novel, confusingly distinguishing or maybe blending even more one of the character’s thoughts and… what? What she says out loud? What she dares to articulate? What she accepts to think, what is politically correct?… The way Ali Smith plays with punctuation is enough to make you think, but, luckily, that’s not all there is to make Girl Meets Boy a recommendable read.
How to describe this novel? Divided into five parts whose titles I won’t disclose, it evolves from a cheerful childhood scene (and a magistral opening line: “Let me tell you about when I was a girl, our grandfather says.”) to the present days situation of two sisters, Imogen, the rational one, and Anthea, the dreamer. Imogen had Anthea hired in the same company as hers, and alongside her sister, Anthea is part of a creative team who’s supposed to come up with ideas to sell… bottled water. Not fitting in this very rigid and dull environment where everyone resembles one another (despite the loudly proclaimed pride of being part of the original and revered Creative Team), Anthea just walks away the day a mysterious boy comes and tags the front window of the company: “DON’T BE STUPID. WATER IS A HUMAN RIGHT. SELLING IT IN ANY WAY IS MORALLY WRONG.” When the boy climbs down from the ladder, Anthea founds herself face to face with a girl “who looked like the most beautiful boy” she has ever seen.
From this moment on, two motifs are developed and contrasted in the rest of the novel: on one side, the fluidity of gender, the freedom and lightness of love, the laughters of carelessness but also, a deep political commitment to denounce the injustices of our contemporary world; and on the other side, the rigidity, greediness, monstrosity of a large company which knows no limits to expand its profits and which is ready to trample ethics in the name of benefits.
Water is present and represented everywhere in the novel. From Anthea’s fascinated observation of the river that flows through the city (“It was comforting. It had been here way before any town withs its ships, its churches, its restaurants, its houses…“; “as it changed, it stayed the same“) on that last morning to work, to the long conversation of the Creative Team whose topic of the day is “How to bottle imagination?“, to the more metaphoric aspect of gender fluidity, water is the symbolical element that weaves all these different characters together while highlighting their deep-seated differences. While water makes Anthea dream about the unfathomable passing of time, Keith, the Creative Team’s manager, sees water as a source of money: “Water in a bottle makes two billion pounds a year in the UK alone” says he. While some want to bottle, separate, shape and sell water, others embrace its fluidity, its freedom and the improbable routes it can lead to. Two worlds meet in the characters of Keith and the “boy” who tags political messages: the world in which a few company managers want to make money, refuse to acknowledge water as a human right, are ready to dispossess poor populations of their access to fresh water, accusing them of terrorism if need be, and the world of small, ordinary people (actually, two ordinary but courageous girls) who fight against these noxious conceptions and big corporations, with the use of their wit, research and tags to make as many people as possible aware of the unbearable injustices of the world: “ACROSS THE WORLD, TWO MILLION GIRLS, KILLED BEFORE BIRTH OR AT BIRTH BECAUSE THEY WEREN’T BOYS. THAT’S ON RECORD. ADD TO THAT THE OFF-RECORD ESTIMATE OF FIFTY-EIGHT MILLION MORE GIRLS, KILLED BECAUSE THEY WEREN’T BOYS. THAT’S SIXTY MILLIONS GIRLS.” And that’s how Ali Smith reactualizes a very old myth to infuse into it the modern perspective of a committed writing that reminds the reader that reading is not just about magic, godly interventions and miraculous metamorphoses: today, we need to be active if we want things to metamorphose, if we want the world to change, if we want people to have access to fresh water and prevent girls’ killings at their birth (to name a few of the social fights that need to be fought).
Imogen, the good daughter, the good employee, the good girl, strives to accept her sister’s sudden homosexuality (“My little sister is going to grow up into a dissatisfied older predatory totally dried-up abnormal woman…”, “My little sister is going to have a terrible sad life“) while still trapped in a job that is less and less in keeping with her values and what she wanted to use her life for. Wanting to live a “normal” life as a “normal” person, she goes through a personal crisis to reconcile these two poles of her life in a gaping conflict. While Imogen struggles with her fears, aversion but also fascination for her sister and Robin, the new girlfriend, Anthea blooms into a happy young lady who lives in the present and in the arms of her lover who makes her aware of the political and social injustices of the world. It is Robin (an aptly androgynous name as well) who retells Iphis’ myth to Anthea (isn’t this an almost perfect anagram of Ianthe?) in her modern words, thus showing how it is still relevant today. In Girl Meets Boy, no god is going to intervene to make a suitable man out of Robin though (in Robin’s words, the God Iphis’ mother turns to is “the nothingness that was there“), because there are no such things as deus ex machina in modern tales and times. Not wanting to spoil the end of the book, I won’t tell anything more than the fact that Ali Smith’s rewriting, just like Ovid’s story, has a happy ending. Which, once in a while, doesn’t hurt.