Canongate Book 2 – The Girls watch the Boys watch the Girls go by…

While we at Leeds Book Club have always been delighted to fly the Rainbow Flag, I have to admit, I’ve always felt a tad out of the loop regarding the issues.
Though I passionately believe in equality regardless of gender, orientation, age or racial origin, I’m rarely challenged or confronted over the mere act of being me. Over the years, a number of authors who have focused (not necessarily exclusively) on equality issues have been recommended to me.

My response usually follows this pattern  – I read the blurb; announce loudly that it looks fascinating; that I need to learn more about the particular focal point; that it’s clearly an essential read; add said book to my mountain-like to-read pile; turn my back for a mere matter of months (or years) and find that it’s slowly disappeared into the mire – never to see the light of day again. Acclaimed authors such as Colm Toibin, Sarah Waters, Louise Welsh, Alan Hollinghurst to name a few have all been consigned to this fate, despite my best intentions.

When I realised that Ali Smith had produced a book for the Canongate Myth Series, I was at once delighted and relieved. I’ve heard positive reviews from so many friends. I’ve enjoyed her book reviews in the Guardian, intending several times to pick up one of her books.
Finally, I would DEFINITELY read one.
Finally, I would feel a bit more informed.

Background to the Myth – Iphis

The myth of Iphis, as told by the Roman Ovid, is one of transformation and metamorphosis. It is also one of the few Greek tales about interactions between mere mortals and the gods that avoids violence or bloodshed. 

Isis and Iphis by Bauer engraving

Iphis was a daughter of a Cretan family. Immediately prior to her birth, her father had warned his wife that he would only raise a son – any daughter would have to be killed. The distraught woman – already somewhat attached to the child she carried – travelled to a temple and begged the gods for advice. She is told by Isis to raise the child regardless of its gender, vaguely assured that everything will work out well. Once Iphis is born, she is brought up as a boy – the secret kept between mother and daughter. (I’m sensing a rather absent father figure here!)

Iphis grows up and falls in love with one of her classmates. After negotiation; a marriage is arranged. Iphis becomes concerned before the ceremony and flees to the temple with her mother. She cries out to the gods, bemoaning her life as a fraud – terrified that she is certain to be discovered. Her mother adds her voice to the pleas. In a dramatic moment, the goddess Isis appears and before her mothers eyes, Iphis changes into a man – able to marry her love. 


 *****MILD SPOILERS***** 

Anthea and Imogen are very different sisters. They are back living in their home town – in the house they were raised in; inherited after their eccentric grandparents sailed off to Europe on a whim and were never seen again. 

Imogen works for the marketing department for Pure – a bottled water company in Inverness. Anthea attempts work experience there before discovering that she disagrees with everything Pure stands for and rather dramatically chucks it in. 

While Imogen is slowly losing herself to her work place, societal expectations and an eating disorder; Anthea discovers love with an eco-warrior – Robin. (Who happens to be female.) It is Robin who tells her lover Ovid’s myth of Iphis.
This love story informs the action that takes place within the novella. The love story is not the point, rather it is the  catalyst necessary for the sisters growth. While Anthea embraces the warrior within herself; Imogen is forced to confront her worth and that of the corporation she works for and realise her true value.

It transpires that I had somewhat over thought my approach to this book. Although the author is a gay woman; this is not a ‘gay’ book. It’s not a ‘mainstream’ one either. It is, in fact, an incredibly well written, engaging and lyrical novella. Despite it’s brevity; the author manages to express social, political and gender issues with a subtle and light touch. It is a pleasure to read.   

At no point did I ever feel that there was an agenda within the book – rather Girl Meets Boy focuses on the unique and beautiful inter-relationships that can occur between people irrespective of gender or sexual orientation. Each chapter is told by one of the sisters. Anthea is a dreamer, with a solid voice – relating her thoughts in an upfront manner. Imogen voice is initially more obscure – her thoughts are often coded in brackets and repetitive phrases – particularly in relation to her sisters emerging (bi)sexuality. However; once she has had her moment of realisation; her voice – distinct and unique – emerges in a structurally beautiful and poignant way.

I read Girl Meets Boy in one sitting; shifting on my sofa only to prevent a limb from falling asleep. I didn’t even think to refill my coffee – which, if you know me at all, is the strongest statement regarding to my enjoyment of the book that can be made. Ali Smith has a fresh and vibrant writing style. I look forward to reading more of her tales in the future.  



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