Monday, October 18, 2010

Girl meets Boy – Ali Smith

After ‘The Warden’ I really wanted to get stuck straight into ‘Barchester Towers’ but have so far resisted partly to give me the time to get the rest of the series. (I’m off to hunt them down across the cities charity shops in the morning and if that fails it’ll be an amazon binge.) Meanwhile what to read next? My general inclination has been for the 19th century but I’m aware that if I overdo it with that now, by Christmas it won’t appeal at all and I have a stack of ‘Classics’ (quite a bit of Trollope, some Edgeworth, a couple of Wilkie Collins, and some Oliphant amongst others) that I’m keen to work my way through, as well as who knows what else I‘ll find to enthuse over in the meantime.

I had a good scour of the bookshelves but nothing felt quite right (a sort of twist on the ‘I haven’t got a thing to wear’ dilemma) so I opted for short and picked up Ali Smith’s ‘Girl Meets Boy’ which was the result of my last major amazon frolic back in the summer. It’s one of the Canongate myth series (which I think is a fantastic concept, and one which has persuaded me to read writers and books I would never otherwise have picked up) and this time based on an episode in Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’. Art history is littered with episodes from the ‘Metamorphoses’ and I read the book a few times as a student but the story of Iphis and Ianthe isn’t one I particularly remembered.

It seems when Iphis’s mother is pregnant her husband tells her that sadly they can’t afford a girl, so if she has a girl it will have to be put to death. She’s not best pleased with this news and prays desperately to Isis who promises everything will be alright and tells her to bring up the child regardless. Iphis is born a girl, a fact her mother conceals from everyone bar the nurse. Iphis is a name used by both men and women, and she comforts herself that in this at least there is no lie. All goes well until Iphis and Ianthe fall in love – they have grown up together and their match is seen as desirable by all, apart perhaps from Iphis who loves Ianthe with all her heart but sees no way of possessing another woman. Another trip to the temple is called for and the outcome is a transformation. The girl Iphis enters, the boy Iphis leaves – the wedding takes place and everyone lives happily ever after. (Unusual for Ovid – most the stories in ‘Metamorphoses’ end with sadness.)

The quotes on the front of ‘Girl meets boy’ are ‘exhilarating’, ‘Joyful’, and ‘Charming’ all of which are true and as succinct as the book itself. It only took me a couple of hours to read and was an excellent foil for my 19th century obsession. I rarely read contemporary books and this one was to me shockingly contemporary – Cilla Black’s ‘Blind Date’ is history (can’t argue with that) but all the details set ‘Girl meets boy’ so firmly in this time here and now that I can’t imagine what it will read like in 10 or 20 years time – something I’m quite hung up on because I’m just not used to it. It’s also very Scottish, specifically a book set firmly in Inverness (the Scottish ones favourite bookshop is described), something which I really liked – Inverness is a fast growing, fluid, changing sort of place at the moment (or was until the recession hit) a city having its own metamorphoses couldn’t be more appropriate for this story – it’s a character in its own right.

It’s a fantastically poetical book as well and one that appealed to every romantic idea I’ve ever had about falling in love; a book that sings out about how marvellously easy things are once you accept that you’ve met your match, and how exciting they are too. Autumn isn’t my favourite season so reading a definite spring book full of blossom, birdsong, and passion has been a real mood lifter, and it’s a book I mean to get my youngest sister to read whilst she’s still of an age to not expect this kind of exhilaration as a right at the beginning of something. (She’s a good natured girl who generally humours me, which I find hugely endearing.)


  1. Ali Smith is an incredible writer and she's so talented in this one. I agree - the Canongate myths are such a wonderful concept.

  2. Crikey Verity that was quick! It's the first of her books I've read and considering hitting the library for more. This one really moved me, just what I needed the day I read it.

  3. I cannot tell you how much I loved this novel when I read it a couple of years ago. I'm a confirmed Ali Smith fan anyway (especially of her short stories) and I have always thought that her writing about love is the best of her work. Her word choices are almost always perfect and, you're right, it has an exhilaration that is all too rare, I think. A beautiful, beautiful book.

  4. I'm going to look out for some of her short stories, it's a format I really like anyway, and from this book I feel they might be just the kind of thing I love