Review: Girl Meets Boy

Girl Meets Boy is my latest attempt at reading literary fiction. It follows Althea and Midge, two Scottish sisters living in the house their runaway grandparents left them, as they struggle to find out how to define themselves both professionally and personally. Ali Smith leads us with a steady hand through an impossibly (un)gendered land.

The novella is part of the Canongate Myth series, a series of ambitious myth retellings. Many of the myths and figures chosen for the series are well-known: Hercules and Atlas, Penelope and Odysseus, Ragnarok. Jesus Christ. Could you get any more popular? Girl Meets Boy is one of, if not the exception. It reworks the story of Iphis and Ianthe.

Iphis was born to a father who, for financial reasons, was bent on female infanticide. Luckily, Iphis’ mother had a visit from some Egyptian gods, including Isis, who advised her to raise Iphis as a boy. And so, with a gender-neutral name and his father’s approval, Iphis grew up as a fine young lad in basically every way.He even fell in love with Ianthe, the girl his father had arranged him to marry, and Ianthe fell in love with him. On the night before the wedding, Iphis got cold feet about the marriage, seeing as he wasn’t a ‘real man’. Ancient Greece had some rules, apparently. Isis popped up again, finished the job she started all those years ago, and the now ‘fully’ male Iphis went on to marry his bride.

Now, I could spend a week dissecting just the myth. I was a Greek myth nerd when I was a kid. To this day, the only book I have ever stolen from the library was a book of Greek and Norse myths. (I did it by accident, but still.) So how had I never heard of this myth? Maybe the author of that book didn’t think it appropriate for children. Maybe I just didn’t remember the story because it had a happy ending. Maybe I should actually read the copy of Metamorphoses which has been sitting on my bookshelf for three years. The point is, I love that this is a myth, and love that Ali Smith decided to bring it to attention with this book.

I never had to do anything, I said. I’m lucky. I was born mythless. I grew up mythless.
No you didn’t. Nobody grows up mythless, Robin says. It’s what we do with the myths we grow up with that matters.

Initially, Anthea’s point of view is fairly standard – young, curious, queer and rebellious. Anthea wasn’t sucked into the corporate machine because it wasn’t designed for people like her. More interesting is Midge’s point of view, with her struggle to work out where she sits on the scale between her Big Water bosses and her baby-gay sister. Her struggle with her work – compared to Anthea’s outright rejection – is great stuff, all the more so for how ridiculous it is. Particularly engaging is her internal monologue/utter freakout when she realises Anthea is queer. It crystallizes the moment her interest in queer rights goes from abstract to smacking the concrete.

I’d been saying the word Eau out loud, and Anthea walked past the table as I said it, and she added Caledonia, we’re such a good team, we’d be a good team, we’d have been a good team, oh my God my sister is a

Nonetheless I felt as if I’d read this book before. Not in a bad way – I’d enjoyed this book before. Perhaps it’s an indication of how strong Smith’s voice is, that after reading only one other novel of hers I found it so recognisable. Maybe Midge’s journey is a bit of a cliché.

Anthea’s narration shines most when depicting Robin – Smith captures the strange young feeling of discovery with only a slight overture of poetry. Robin is a familiar Smithian character: the enigmatic loner, mysterious and unknowable. But this incarnation is more human than her predecessors – with a childhood, a love interest and a desire to do (chaotic) good.

He was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen in my life. But he really looked like a girl.
She was the most beautiful boy I’d ever seen in my life.

She’s an interesting character – although I can’t help but wonder if she’d be different if Smith had written this today, instead of 14 years ago. Of course, there has been discourse on gender-nonconforming people for thousands of years – the mythical origins are proof of that – but the leap in the last decade does make this look a bit like a toe-dipping more than anything else. The myth looks like fertile ground for further reimagining.

This is a fairly dense little novella. Although Althea and Midge’s stories are fairly straightforward, their internal struggles give them an intensity which lend themselves to thoughtful reading. Their realisations of where they’ve come from, and how that affects where they’ll go, are wonderfully playful and sincere. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and suspect that I will continue to do so in the years to come.

🌸 🌸 🌸 🌸
Iphis and Ianthe is where the novel shines, as Smith reaches over the recent craze for modern myths and points out that she did it, and rather dreamily, in 2007.

But is it gay?
Thoughtful commentary on what it means to be gender-nonconforming and gay abounds.

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