I’ve got to say, I love the myth of Iphis. It first appeared in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a compendium of myths about transformation. That’s also a fun read if you’re into Greco-Roman mythology, though some of the myths are grim. Iphis is one of the happy ones, though, a delightfully queer and upbeat story about a girl raised as a boy who is eventually turned into a man. According to Ovid, this was absolutely necessary for her to marry her true love, Ianthe, which is a shame for lesbian representation, but great for genderqueer retellings like Girl Meets Boy. It’s such an obscure myth, too, and it was my first time reading anything by Ali Smith, so I was excited to see what she would do with it.
It turns out Girl Meets Boy is the story of two sisters, Anthea and Imogen, meeting Robin, the androgynous Iphis character. Anthea and Robin fall in love and team up as the ‘Messenger Girls’, protest artists raising awareness about water, LGBT and women’s rights. As a result, Imogen, the straight-laced one, faces up to her own internalized homophobia and is challenged to reevaluate her devotion to the sleazy water bottling corporation she works for.
Girl Meets Boy is a really interesting and playful study of gender and identity. The point of view switches between Anthea and Imogen, so we get to see both the burgeoning romance and Imogen struggling to accept it. There is reference to homophobia, so be aware of that. But ultimately, LGBT+ identities are celebrated. Robin is presented as androgynous and possibly non-binary, and while it might have been interesting to see ‘Iphis’ as a trans character, it’s still good to see some positive LGBT+ representation. Robin is the most confident, happy and fulfilled character in the book, unlike Anthea and Imogen, who both seem pretty depressed when we meet them.
I really liked Anthea and Imogen. They are both presented with humor and sympathy and both grow as characters. The split narrative works well in this respect, giving us insight into their character growth and very different personalities. Anthea’s narration is more poetic, including what I’m pretty sure is a sex scene that becomes a transformation (into a bird?) and long, beautiful run-on sentences that dispense with punctuation and starts to read like poetry. Her chapters are full of word play; witness her suggestion for a new Scottish brand name for the bottled water company: Och Well. She and Robin also discuss the Iphis myth at length, along with the broader implications of its misogyny. Direct parallels are drawn between the infanticide of baby girls threatened in the myth and the modern practice of selective abortions, for example. This will later fuel their joint career as protest artists.
Imogen’s narrative is stream-of-consciousness but also matter-of-fact. There are a lot of bracketed sentences as she grapples with the implications of each successive thought. She is shown to be very image-conscious, buying into the myth of material success leading to happiness. It doesn’t seem to be working out for her, though. Despite owning a nice house and having a top job, she’s still lonely, unhappily single, flirting with an eating disorder and underappreciated by her boorish male colleagues. But while Anthea resolves her personal crisis fairly quickly, thanks to Robin, Imogen’s emotional journey is more gradual and all the more interesting for it.
The novella’s based on a myth about transformation, so growth and change are central themes, obviously. Water is a key motif throughout, which makes the Inverness setting a genius choice, since it’s surrounded by water. (In terms of genderbending, Scotland’s also perfect, considering its national garment is the kilt, a skirt-like garment for men.) Water rights are discussed, and Imogen’s unethical water bottling company is a great metaphor for her rigid worldview and trapped potential. Like water, identity should be allowed to flow and change.
So Girl Meets Boy has some serious messages and themes. (Smith even includes references for her statistics, though they’re probably out-of-date by now.) But it’s wrapped up in so much word play and punning that it’s still an entertaining read. I’m a sucker for puns, so I loved it. With its horrifying home truths lurking under the fun, punny writing and happy ending, I’d say Girl Meets Boy is a worthy adaptation of Ovid’s myth.
Alternative Title: The Gender Games
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 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.