Myths may be ancient tales set in foreign lands, but they are also timeless and universal. They are usually filled with magic and fantastical creatures, yet they contain more truth than a lot of fiction, because they reflect our fears, desires, and ultimately show what it is to be human.
A number of years ago, Cannongate Books invited some of the world’s finest writers to retell a myth in a contemporary and memorable way. Amongst these writers was Inverness-born Ali Smith, who in 2007, published her novella, Girl Meets Boy. Although it features relationships, Girl Meets Boy is not a romance book; it is a story about transformation, tolerance of diversity, and acceptance of who you are.
Girl Meets Boy retells the Ancient Greek myth about Iphis, the girl who grows up to be a man. I was hooked from the very first line: ‘Let me tell you about when I was a girl, our grandfather says.’ At just over a hundred and sixty pages long, I was able to read the entire book in one sitting, never once getting the urge to put it down. Ali Smith encourages readers to keep going all the way to the end by means of several literary techniques that in conjunction with one another create free flowing passages. These techniques include first person, present tense, a lack of chapters (though they are divided by other means), and no speech marks. These techniques are trickier than the more common third person, past tense narrative, and in the hands of an amateur, combining all four atypical elements could easily lead to disaster. Ali Smith makes it look effortless.
The narrative is shared between sisters Anthea and Imogen, who couldn’t be more different from one another. Anthea is carefree, curious, and completely comfortable in her own skin. Imogen is uptight, obsessive, and insecure. Her desire to fit in with the crowd and be normal has led to bulimia, homophobia, and hanging out with guys she doesn’t like. Imogen tries to convince herself ‘(I am not upset. I am not upset. I am not upset. I am not upset.)’, but she’s unable to get over the fact that her little sister ‘is A GAY’. The very fact that half of Imogen’s thoughts are in parenthesis indicates that she always has to keep herself in check, and is never confident enough to speak out or stand by her convictions.
Anthea is not actually gay, but rather pansexual. She has had boyfriends in the past, and upon seeing Robin for the first time, initially thinks she is a man: ‘She was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen in my life.’
As well as exploring familial and sexual relationships, Girl Meets Boy also covers professional relationships too. Anthea and Imogen both work for Keith, a pervy, sexist, capitalist who loves making money buy selling Mother Earth’s natural amenity, water. Smith cleverly uses the Pure company to turn a microcosmic story about two sisters into something much more universal, by weaving a political backdrop about human rights and gender equality. Girl Meets Boy is an amazing read in which you are made to empathise with both sisters whatever your own personal views may be.