Mar 30, 2009

Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith

Girl Meets Boy uses the myth of Iphis, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as a point of departure to tell a beautiful story about homophobia and sexism, female sexuality and love. In the original myth, Iphis is a girl who is raised as a boy because her father threatened her pregnant mother to kill the baby if it was female. Years later, the supposedly male Iphis falls in love with Ianthe, and they become engaged. The day before the wedding, worried that as a female she will never be able to satisfy her wife, Iphis prays to the gods for a miracle. And just in time for her wedding night, she is turned into a man, and s/he and Ianthe live happily ever after.

Needless to say, this is not what happens in Girl meets Boy. The story is not so much a retelling of the myth as a whole new story that explores the myth’s themes in a different light. The book is divided into sections: in the first, Anthea tries and fails to fit into the life her older sister is hoping she’ll fit into. In the second section, Imogen, Anthea sister, tries to deal with her fact that her sister is gay:
(My sister would be banned in schools if she was a book.)
(No, because the parliament lifted that legislation, didn’t it?)
(Did it?)
(I can’t remember. I can’t remember either way. I didn’t ever think that particular law was anything I’d ever have to remember, or consider.)
Imogen, unfortunately, has co-workers such as these:
You know, I say, it said in the paper this morning that teenagers who are gay are six times more likely to kill themselves than teenagers who aren’t.
Good. Ha ha! Norman says.
Dominic’s eyes cloud. Human species, self-patrolling, he says.
They start talking as if I’m not there again, like they did when they were talking about work.
There is another section from Imogen’s point of view later in the book, and that was what made me go from really, really liking this book to absolutely loving it. I won’t tell you what happens, but I will say that in this section Imogen grows into a much more complex and interesting character.

Also, Anthea and her girlfriend Robin do something awesome. I’d love to tell you what it is, and I could, since this isn’t really a book that can be spoiled. But I’d much rather make you curious enough to pick it up. The most interesting thing, however, is that we see what Anthea and Robin do from Imogen’s perspective, and her reaction is not what you might have expected at the beginning of the book.

Girl meets Boy is a short book, but it’s so rich. I know that Ali Smith’s writing doesn’t work for everyone, but personally I love it. The more I read her, actually, the more I love her. I love her tenderness, her subtlety, her rawness, her humour and her warmth. I loved the way she explored gender in this story – the way we perceive it, the way others perceive it, the ingrained sexist practices that are still seen as natural by so many.

I also loved the way she explored sexuality. Rhinoa was absolutely right: this book has one of the most beautiful and moving sex scenes I’ve ever read. Did you know, by the way, that the reason why sex between women wasn’t made illegal in Victorian times was because it was decided that it didn’t exist, and thus there was no point in even making it illegal?

A nice bonus is the fact that the story is mostly set in Inverness, a city I love. I really enjoyed revisiting familiar places as I read the book: the old Town House, the riverside, the Ness isles, the old church that was turned into a second hand bookstore.

Girl Meets Boy is up there with Dream Angus as my favourite book in the Canongate Myth Series so far. I need to get my hands on: Binu and the Great Wall next.

More beautiful bits:
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 as brave and handsome and rough as a girl. She was as pretty and dainty and delicate as a boy. She turned boys’ heads like a girl. She turned girl’s heads like a boy. She made love like a boy. She made love like a girl. She was so boyish it was girly, so girly it was boyish, she made me want to rove the world writing our names in every tree.

Tell me what it is, I say.
It’s water, Robin Goodman says.
No, I say. I mean, what’s the correct word for it, I mean, for you? I need to know it. I need to know the proper word.
She looks at me for a long time. I can feel her looking right through my drunkness. Then, when she speaks, it is as if the whole look of her speaks.
The proper word for me, Robin Goodman says, is me.

Then I saw her smile so close to my eye that there was nothing to see but the smile, and the thought came into my head that I’d never been inside a smile before, who’d have thought being inside a smile would be so ancient and so modern both at once?

Anthea, do you really think you’ll change the world a single jot by calling yourself by a funny name and doing what you’ve been doing? You really think you’ll make a single bit of difference to all the unfair things and all the suffering and all the injustice and all the hardship with a few words?
Yes, she says.
Okay. Good, I say.
Other Opinions:
Rhinoa’s Ramblings
Valentina’s Room
Bart’s Bookshelf
Adventures in Reading
Feminist Review
Books & Other Thoughts
Paperback Reader

(If I missed yours, please let me know.)


  1. Oh, I want this book! I want this book so much! I'd never heard of it before, and it just sounds so beautiful. And I'm so utterly in love with that last passage you shared!!!

  2. Another one I definitely have to pick up. I love good treatments about sexuality! And I like that parenthetic conversation up there. :D

  3. I've enjoyed the books I've read in the Canongate series thus far -- Dream Angus and The Penelopiad. This one sounds like it would be just as good if not better. Thanks for a great review!

  4. I'm so glad you enjoyed this too. It is such a beautiful book and I got my mum a copy for Mothers Day which I hope she gets around to soon. I haven't been to Inverness, but will have to plan a trip at some point.

  5. I am intrigued! I will be picking this up. Thanks again, for another wonderful review.

  6. Ana, you did it again! I'm so getting this book!

  7. That's another truly amazing review! That's another book that's immediately gne right to the top of my wishlist because of your review! I definitely want to read this one and i want to read it soon!

  8. Successful post: you have me quite curious! on the wishlist, this goes.

  9. I really need to read some of the Canongate Myth series. And it's been awhile now since I've read anything by Ali Smith. She can be a bit hit or miss with me sometimes but this does sound intriguing.

  10. I really want to read this, but my library doesn't have it. :(

  11. Wow, this review really touched a nerve - usurped first place on my to-read list. :)

    ~ julia.

  12. I beginning to think that you have excellent book radar built in. It sounds really good and I will also have to add it to my list. Since I started visiting your blog, my TBR has grown as a fast rate!

  13. *sigh* must read this one soon. I added to the wishlist after Bart reviewed it...sounds so good!

  14. I hadn't even heard of the Canongate myth series but I am definitely going to check it out. Great review!

  15. I've only read Jeanette Winterson's book from the Canongate Myth series but I saw that Michael Faber's name was on the list as well as Dubravka Ugresic's (the latter I'm still looking for in its untranslated version).

    I realllllly need to get my hands on this one as well. Thanks for the great review! :)

  16. Glad you liked it. I would like to have loved it more than I did, but it is still a great read.

  17. Beautiful review, Nymeth! Now thanks to you, I'm adding another book onto my wishlist, again! :P

  18. Sounds a bit different than my normal reading fare, but I might check it out sometime.

  19. Okay, now we're even, but who's keeping score. This is an amazing review and I am adding this to my TBR list. This is the first time I've heard of the Cannongate Myth series and I hope my library them!

  20. I'm sold on this! Wonderful review. Now I have a question for you read a lot of mythology? How did you know that this book was a retelling sort-of like Ovid's Metamorphoses? I haven't read any of these myths...I'm sad about my lack of knowledge in this area, but as I continue to read your blog I get educated a little bit more every day!! :)

  21. This sounds like a wonderful book. You do get back at me, don't you?! :-p It's on the list.

  22. This one really grabs my attention. I totally love myth/fairy tale retellings and it sounds a little off-beat. I need off-beat right now. Thanks for recommending!

  23. I have Binu and the Great Wall on my shelf! I'm planning to read it for Once Upon a Time III soon. I've been wanting to read Girl Meets Boy too. The only other Canongate Myth series that I've read is Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood. It was pretty good.

  24. Oh man. I am sad I can't find this in ebook form, which is my preference. It sounds like a book I would adore.

  25. Another book to add to the list!! You are KILLING me!!

  26. This is a very beautiful review Nymeth. I have never heard of the myth nor have i ever heard of Ali Smith. But considering I loved the sentences you posted from the book I am sure I'll love her writing. It's like poetry, almost.

  27. Could you have teased us anymore?? I'm trying to count how many times you told us "I wish I could tell you..." and didn't! :P Sounds like a complex and touching story. Interesting tidbit--I picked up Fun Home the other day and was surprised to find it in the lesbian fiction section of the bookstore...? I thought the book was more about the relationship with the father, or is the author gay?

  28. Great blog!

    I have had this book on my wishlist for some time ... time to bump it up! I enjoyed The Penelopiad from the Canongate Myth series and Ali Smith's The Accidental.

    I also knew about the legality of sex between women in Victorian times; it was Queen Victoria who deemed it didn't exist because she couldn't imagine it herself.

  29. It sounds a beautiful book, I really liked the quotes you picked.

  30. Debi, glad you like it :D You'd enjoy this for sure!

    Amanda: So do I! That whole section with Imogen's reaction to the news about her sister is like that, and I thought it worked really well.

    Lisa: This is one of the best, I think. I'm really loving the series.

    Rhinoa: Oh, you have to go! It's such a beautiful area.

    Nely, you're welcome!

    Alice: tis what I'm here for :P

    Ramya, hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

    Care: I'm glad to have made you curious :P

    tanabata: Yes, you do need to read the series! It's awesome so far (except for The Helmet of Horror, which I disliked strongly enough to decide it doesn't count :P)

    Kailana: That's too bad :(

    Julia, I hope you enjoy it!

    Scrap Girl: hehe, book radar. I like to think I have a good one :P

    Chris: Yes, yes you must :P

    Sam: It's an excellent series! So many amazing authors contributed.

    Lena: Weight is another one of my favourites to date. What a great book.

  31. Bart: That just happens sometimes...I know the feeling. Happened to me last week, actually!

    Melody: Like I was telling Alice, it's what I'm here for :P

    Naida: It's a beautiful bit, isn't it? :)

    Amy: I hope you enjoy it if you do decide to take the plunge!

    Gavin: I think you'd really enjoy the Myth series! Fingers crossed that your library has them.

    Staci: I like mythology a lot! Not quite as much as fairy tales, but almost :P I actually haven't read the Metamorphoses yet (must change that), but I knew it incorporated the myth because every book in the Canongate series retells/reimagines/departs from a myth. They're a lot of fun!

    Darla: hehehe :P

    Kim, hope you enjoy it!

    Mee: I'm thinking of getting it to read for the challenge also. I know very little about Chinese mythology, but hopefully this will give me extra motivation to read more. And yes, I enjoyed The Penelopiad a lot also :)

    Shannon C: That's too bad it isn't available as an e-book :(

    Stephanie: I aim to please :P

    Violet: Ali Smith seems to be a love her or hate her sort of author, but I'm firmly in the love her field. Her writing style is really unique, and you're right, it almost reads like poetry at times!

    Trish: lol :P She's gay, yes. She's known for a comic series called Dykes to Watch Out For. The book is both about her relationship with her father and reaction to his death and about her realization of her sexual orientation. The two are actually connected, and you'll see how when you read it. Fun Home won the Lambda Award for Lesbian Fiction, and while I'm all for awards like that, which bring these books visibility, I'm less than happy about there being a special section of the bookstore for books with gay characters, as if that was their sole defining trait, and as if books stocked there were solely about sexuality *grumble grumble*

    Paperback Reader: Thank you :D If you enjoyed The Penelopiad and The Accidental, then I really think you'll enjoy this also. I learned that about Victoria in the book, but I had no idea before. I should read something about the history of homophobia, actually.

    Alexa: It really is beautiful :)

  32. Well, what got me was that the lesbian/gay fiction was right underneath the African-American fiction. I was dumbfounded!! I can see maybe having a spot for African-American studies, but fiction?? Not only that, but I was under the impression Fun Home was a memoir--not sure how that gets it classified as fiction? Pigeonholes... I hear your grumbing!!

    Oh! And how is it that I'm just now finding out about the Canongate series?? I looked it up on wikipedia and feel like I've been missing out!

  33. In regards to the separation in bookstores of gay/lesbian literature and also African American...there's quite a lot of controversy over it. I mean, some publishers even have separate imprints for African American literature.

    I think in the end it's not really about discrimination or boxing the authors in as it is about helping readers who want books about African American characters or gay characters find them more easily. That's what my optimistic heart chooses to believe.

    We had quite the conversation about this when trying to come up with categories for BBAW awards. :)

  34. I can't recall how I learned about Queen Victoria's attitude ... possibly via Sarah Waters by reading about Radclyffe Hall (very likely the latter).

  35. Trish: It's a memoir, yes, and she actually won the Lambda for memoir/autobiography. My bad there :P About the Canongate series, you have been missing out indeed! They're awesome.

    Amy: I think you're right; bookstores and publishers probably don't do it with discriminatory intentions. But if this makes these books easy to find, it also makes them easy to avoid, you know? Actually, I think I remember a similar discussion at your blog about Christian fiction. It's not surprising these things are controversial. It's not an easy decision. How do you bring the books visibility without giving the idea that they're something completely apart from mainstream fiction?

    Paperback Reader: I'm close to finishing my first Sarah Waters book ever, and I think I've found a new favourite.

  36. Fingersmith is my favourite Sarah Waters book, and one of my favourite books in general. I am counting down the days until her new book, The Little Stranger, is published!

    I hate the pigeon-holing of texts but I can see its advantages too ... It can be so limiting though and prevent you from discovering wonderful books.

  37. Yeah, I can see both sides of the matter too, but in my ideal world there would be no special areas of the bookshop and we'd all read diversely and be happy :P

    I have no idea how I could have gone for so long without realizing how incredibly good Sarah Waters is. I want to read everything she's written now!

  38. I've loved the Ali Smith I have read (especially Other stories and other stories) but still have this to look forward to.

    I've enjoyed the others in the Myths series I've read as well, especially The Penelopiad and The Fire Gospel.

  39. Every time I visit your site my TBR list gets a little a little longer. I really liked this review. You make the book sound very tender and thoughtful, and the quotes you used really exemplify that. Great review.

  40. Great review! I love Ali Smith, but I've put this one off for far too long.

  41. Sarah: I still haven't read The Fire Gospel, but I loved The Penelopiad too.

    Zibilee: tender and thoughtful - that's exactly right :)

    SFP: Thanks! I put if off for too long myself, but I'm very glad to have read it at last.

  42. I've never read Ali Smith and the title of this book never appealed to me, and now you've made me want to read this!

  43. Great review! I really enjoyed Ali Smith's Hotel World - mostly the style of writing was what I liked. And I really like reading about mythology (probably because I know next to nothing about it) so I think I will take a look at this Myth series :)

  44. This book does sound interesting. I love mythology, generally - why do you think this book uses a myth as it's basis? Does the underlying myth add value to the story, or is it just an inspiration for the plot?

  45. Marineko: I hope you enjoy it when you get to it!

    Joanne: I haven't read Hotel World yet, but I've heard excellent things about it. I love her writing style.

    Jason: Actually, the plot of the myth doesn't have much to do with the plot of the novel, but at one point one of the characters retells the myth to another. I think Smith picked it has a point of departure because of the way it explores gender and sexuality. In the myth, Iphis'"miracle" is to be turned into a boy and live happily with Ianthe. And the way Ovid tells it doesn't even feel malicious, or discriminatory...just like a failure of the imagination, a failure that didn't allow him to think that two women could be in a relationship, that their relationship could be sexual, that they didn't need to change who they were to be together. What she shows in Girl Meets Boy is that all sorts of sexual and gender identities ARE possible, that people can be happy in all sorts of different ways. Which should go without saying, but for many it still doesn't.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.