Due to an administrative mistake, in the spring of 2010 I studied a French literature module on Gender Issues in Seventeenth Century French Theatre. Surprisingly, this class has had limited practical application in my post-student life. So you can imagine how thrilled I was, ten years later, to discover that someone had written a book about one of the plays that I studied. The myth of Iphis and Ianthe first appeared in Ovid’s Metamorphosis but Isaac de Benserade’s comic play was based on the same story. Iphis’s father said that if his wife gave birth to a girl, the child would be slaughtered instantly. And of course, Iphis was born female. After praying to the goddess Isis, Iphis’ mother decides to just … go with the flow. Congratulate her husband on their healthy son. Presumably say he doesn’t need to help change any nappies. In this sparkling book, Ali Smith takes this story as old as time itself and makes it dance.
Girl Meets Boy has a fabulous opening line, ‘Let me tell you about when I was a girl, our grandfather says‘. The story centres around two sisters, Imogen and Anthea, who live in a house left to them by their grandparents. Imogen is earth-bound, trying to fit in at Pure, the bottled water company that they both work at even as it becomes clear that the company is run by highly unscrupulous people. Anthea is a dreamer, hazing through the days until one day the company is targeted by gender-queer eco-protestor Iphisol, aka Robin, aka Robin Goodman. For Anthea, this is love at first sight.
Ali Smith’s stream of conscious style gives the reader the full force of Anthea’s emotion as she gazes upon Robin for the firs time. ‘She had the swagger of a girl. She blushed like a boy. She had a girl’s toughness. She has 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 delicate and dainty as a boy.‘ And isn’t it funny how clearly you can picture Robin from that passage? It was so refreshing to read a love story featuring same-sex characters which actually allowed the lovers feel the joy of being in love. Girl Meets Boy is a novel that bounces and fizzes with delight, capturing very vividly that ‘two people in a bubble’ feeling that is so much of the early days of a new relationship.
Outside of this bubble though, Imogen is struggling with her own internalised homophobia. We are treated to her hysterical inner monologue, ‘Oh my God my sister is a GAY.‘ Blaming everyone from their mother for splitting up with their father to the Spice Girls, Imogen is experiencing that helter-skelter feeling of the unfamiliar. What I loved about this passage is how it captured all the ways that society teaches us to ‘other’ homosexuality. Imogen remembers watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a teenager and we recognise that she had believed that the kiss between Willow and Tara was beautiful but that she knew that the correct response when at school was to make sick noises. Also back in the schooldays, Imogen remembers bullying Robin. And again we’re back at Normal People, the sins you commit when all you care about is conforming. Yet it is the meeting point between these two people that gave Girl Meets Boy one of its crowning moments, at least for me. As a tipsy Imogen returns home and rambles to Robin about what the ‘proper word’ for someone like her would be, a kind Robin pours her a glass of water and tells her, ‘The proper word for me, Robin Goodman says, is me‘. And at that, I want to punch the air. Yes.
I grew up around homophobia but it has taken on many different shapes over the years. When I was ten, it looked like my classmates asking me if it was true that my best friend’s mum (who was also my childminder) was gay. When I was thirteen it was everyone (including myself) labelling just about every noun we could see (tables, sweatshirts, chairs) as gay. When I was eighteen, it was my fellow-students calling homosexuals sinners. Always referring to them as a separate species, never reaching out in love. When I was twenty and working at a Christian summer camp, the word used was ‘abomination’. Also in use was another word that began with an ‘f’. In my mid-twenties, it was two lovely young men coming to our bible study group and cooking us all a delicious dinner but then one half of the room refused to sit with them. Such utter, utter gross bad manners within the Christian community. It was being a teacher and being told not to correct the children when they said that ‘gay people go to hell’ because otherwise their parents would complain. So instead the bigotry is handed on to the next generation. Worst of all though was the dear friend who I watched torture herself into denying her own sexuality, to the point where she became an unpleasant person to know – homophobia made her afraid of her true self. What I love about Girl Meets Boy is that Smith brings it back to the individual. It’s about looking at a person and not trying to make them fit into one of the boxes that you have at the ready, but instead looking at them and actually seeing them and embracing who they are. It bothers me that this is still such a challenging concept for so many.
With an activist as one of its main characters, Girl Meets Boy is a book with an unashamed mission. Robin and Anthea go on a spray-painting protest, displaying statistics on misogynistic violence against women and girls. In honesty, I found this section less engaging. It’s not news, we’ve heard a lot of this already and it felt quite ‘crowbarred in’. I was interested though in how Smith engaged with her source material. Robin tells Anthea the myth while they are in bed together. The two of them take on the character names as pseudonyms. Like the best retellings, Girl Meets Boy made me see the original story differently. I had remembered the tale of Iphis and Ianthe as just another strange Greek metamorphosis myth but Smith’s novel put it in context as part of a wider misogynistic history. There are still societies who slaughter their female children. In many cultures, ignorance (and a lack of imagination) leads to a belief that women cannot have true intimate relationships with each other.
I have seen some reviews that dismissed Girl Meets Boy as ‘puerile’ in its defence of lesbianism. I would add here that this links back to the original myth. Even in Benserade’s play, one of the key lines is the lament of a by-stander that Iphis and Ianthe cannot possibly marry since ‘ils manquent à leur hymene la meilleure partie’ (so basically, they don’t have ‘the best bit’ needed for consummation). The night after their wedding, Iphis goes to the temple and rages to Isis that she cannot live this way. Back with Ianthe though, it is clear that she has had quite a nice time. And it’s funny, after my slog through the dark women-hating, women-raping halls of popular Greek mythology, returning to this story about two women figuring themselves out was a big breath of fresh air.
Another standout line from Girl Meets Boy was ‘It’s what we do with the myths we grow up with that matters‘. This is a message that goes beyond reworking stories told by the Greeks and the Romans. It’s about challenging the messages that society puts in your head. Smith has conjured up a vibrant medley of modernity and antiquity and through this she prompts her characters (and the reader) to some thought-provoking musings on morality and life itself. We are beyond the reach of the deus ex machina – there will be no divine intervention to render Robin a ‘good man’, it can only come from societal acceptance. The happy ending comes from a world ready to rejoice at the sight of two people in love.
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Published by Canongate on 2009
Genres: Fiction, Literary, Romance, General
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