What I Loved: Girl meets Boy: The Myth of Iphis by Ali Smith
As I was texting my sister, asking her to lend me her copy of Girl Meets Boy so I could write this column, she was, in that moment, handing it to a friend to read. I lost my copy a while ago to the same practice. She retrieved it for me, and I sat down to re-read a story I have read and loved on several occasions and yet can never entirely recall. The details might be hazy as I always read it in one sitting; I start the book and for a couple of hours I am swept up and carried along by Ali Smith’s mesmerising language. I am deposited at the end feeling invigorated, filled with the joy of the ideas, but again, I’ve very soon forgotten the plot – though that may be the point.
Girl Meets Boy was written as part of the Canongate Myth Series wherein contemporary authors were asked to re-imagine classic myths. Reinterpreting the story of Iphis, in which a young girl is turned into a boy with the help of the gods, Smith takes on one of the only happy stories from Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’.
Smith’s version of this godly intervention, which turns an impending tragedy into a triumph, is set in 2007 and takes us from Minoan Crete to Inverness. Smith brings this subversive myth to life in a modern-day satire that is somehow both a rom-com and a political statement. This very slim book – 160 pages – surprises me on every re-reading. Each time I realise I have forgotten the names of the two sisters who narrate the metamorphosis, the particulars of the corporation involved, the names of the satirised co-workers and the order of scenes. All of those details are a pleasure on rediscovery, but what I most enjoy is the sensation of reading. That the plot is hard to pin down feels in some ways irrelevant – I read this book for the language, for the journey.
Ali Smith’s writing appears as a stream of consciousness, and yet even as a stream it runs a well-defined course, banked in, controlled, gurgling along, and then spilling into moments of clarity: ‘Was I the force of water through stone? I was hard all right, and then I was sinew, I was a snake, I changed stone to snake in three simple moves, stoke stake, snake …’
I have never read another author who clearly takes such joy in the English language. It is sly and playful, subverting expectations, even down to the title of Girl Meets Boy. Those three words contain the sum of the story: transformation, gender fluidity, a romantic comedy. This is both myth and satire, woven with a pointed social commentary. As one protagonist states, ‘I will also have to find a way of telling the story that doesn’t make people look away, or go and sit somewhere else.’ In her artful telling of Girl Meets Boy, Smith achieves just this, and her light tale settles with an unexpected weight.
Marie Matteson is a bookseller at Readings Carlton.