Girl Meets Boy: The Myth of Iphis

Girl Meets Boy: The Myth of Iphis

by Ali Smith

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From the astonishingly talented writer of The Accidental and Hotel World comes Ali Smith’s brilliant retelling of Ovid’s gender-bending myth of Iphis and Ianthe, as seen through the eyes of two Scottish sisters. Girl Meets Boy is about girls and boys, girls and girls, love and transformation, and the absurdity of consumerism, as

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From the astonishingly talented writer of The Accidental and Hotel World comes Ali Smith’s brilliant retelling of Ovid’s gender-bending myth of Iphis and Ianthe, as seen through the eyes of two Scottish sisters. Girl Meets Boy is about girls and boys, girls and girls, love and transformation, and the absurdity of consumerism, as well as a story of reversals and revelations that is as sharply witty as it is lyrical. Funny, fresh, poetic, and political, Girl Meets Boy is a myth of metamorphosis for a world made in Madison Avenue’s image, and the funniest addition to the Myths series from Canongate since Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Veteran British novelist Smith returns from 2006's Whitbread Award-winner The Accidentalwith a cheerful, sexy, disorienting take on the gender-shifting myths of Iphis (as told in Ovid's Metamorphoses). Fragile, rootless Anthea arrives at the Inverness, Scotland, offices of the slick, multibrand corporate behemoth Pure, where her up-and-coming sister Midge has gotten her a job. Raised on their grandfather's strange stories of rebellion and gender switching, the sisters undergo very different transformations when confronting "Pure oblivion," the corporation's goal of being simultaneously ubiquitous and invisible. Drifting at work, Anthea meets kilt-clad graffiti artist Robin, who awakens destructive passions within her. Midge, meanwhile, is summoned to Pure's London headquarters by Keith, the charismatic "boss of bosses," and her meeting with him sets her on an unexpected course with the company. Smith's spare and sharp lyricism makes the action secondary, but the ironies that arise from the corporate setting for a very old myth are handled with glee (including jabs at water supply privatization), and Smith's cadences, which read like classical drama, carry the novel along beautifully. (Jan.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

In Ovid's myth about Iphis, the title, female character is raised as a boy, falls in love with another girl, and then is transformed into a man the night before her wedding to her beloved, Ianthe. Whitbread Award winner Smith (The Accidental) retells Ovid's story using modern-day Scotland as a backdrop and substituting socially rebellious Anthea and Robin in the roles of Ianthe and Iphis. With her sister Imogen's help, Anthea gets a job at Pure, a company that sells bottled water. During a staff meeting intended to solicit marketing ideas, there is a disturbance outside: Robin, a girl dressed in boy's clothing, is defacing the Pure sign with a spray-painted message about the immorality of selling water. One look at Robin, and Anthea is in love. She leaves her new job to join forces with Robin in tagging public buildings with provocative social statements. The real metamorphosis, however, comes with Imogen, who starts out a rigid anorexic and ends up embracing a freer existence. Part of "The Myths" series, wherein writers retell classical stories, Smith's small novel imaginatively touches on big subjects of political and social importance. Recommended, especially for collections with other novels in the series.
—Joy Humphrey

Kirkus Reviews
Updating Ovid's myth of Iphis and Ianthe, the noted British author slyly explores a blurring of the sexual divide. Novelist and short-story writer Smith (The Accidental, 2006, etc.) makes her contribution to a series of modernized myths via a brief narrative that limits the impact of her multiple themes. But there's still plenty of her customary stylistic and intellectual playfulness, as well as some bravura passages, in this story of sisters Imogen and Anthea Gunn, one in thrall to the Pure company that is busily packaging Scottish water-"the perfect commodity"-and the other in love with Robin Goodman, the graffiti artist she meets defacing Pure's company sign, leaving the signature IPHISOL. Robin is a girl, as was Iphis, the Cretan teenager who passed as a boy, fell in love with Ianthe, became betrothed to her but panicked over the question of satisfying her sexually after the wedding. Iphis's prayer to the gods was answered: She was changed into a male. Girl thus met boy in a whole new way, as Smith underlines in a sexual riff-"I was a she was a he was a we"-that further mingles gender boundaries. For the other sister, boy (Paul, a colleague) meets girl (Imogen) after a trip which has revealed Pure's not-so-spotless ambitions for global domination. Paul first shows Imogen some new, bold, feminist graffiti, then takes her to bed. There's an appropriately happy ending: "Reader, I married him/her."The politics don't especially convince, but the comic, smart, spirited tale-spinning often amuses.
From the Publisher
“The great thing about stories is that they can build their own walls and then let us walk right through them. Girl Meets Boy is a joyful celebration of life in all its strange shapes, on all sides of the wall.” –Jeanette Winterson, The Times

“A spritely love story that plays on notions of gender and sexuality to exuberant effect.” –The Observer

“Smith has done a splendid job. Alongside the touching love story are some perceptive insights on the ambiguities of gender. As fanciful as it is honest and as moving as it is hilarious, this is a gorgeous story.” –The London Paper

“An ecstatic, exhilarating helter-skelter ride of a story which shows just how relevant Ovid’s myth of the transformative power of love is to modern readers . . . [Smith's] Midge and Anthea are jean-clad demonstrations that myths aren’t about exotic gods but human experience.” –Financial Times

“It is clever, complex and thrilling . . . Girl Meets Boy delights because it refuses to stop at a single metamorphosis; despite its compactness, its stories multiply and rebound exuberantly, its echoes calling to one another across the pages.” –The Times Literary Supplement (TLS)

“Ali Smith bursts from the page with her fabulous retelling of the story of Iphis and Ianthe from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Girl Meets Boy . . . pulls you in and doesn't let you go. . . . Smith's retelling is bold and brilliant–containing the best sex I've read in years.”One of Jackie Kay’s favourite books of 2007, The Observer

“From its arresting opening line to its exuberant ending, Girl Meets Boy is concerned with gender, love and transformation.”London Review of Books

“A cheerful, sexy, disorienting take on the gender-shifting myths of Iphis . . . Smith’s spare and sharp lyricism . . . are handled with glee . . . and Smith’s cadences, which read like classical drama, carry the novel along beautifully.”  –Publishers Weekly

“Ali Smith’s Girl Meets Boy might give you the inspiration you need to seek out love . . . [A] compact, rollicking novel . . . In Smith’s hands, Ovid’s gender-bending metamorphosis story gets a Madison Avenue-style makeover. –The San Diego Union-Tribune

“Ali Smith’s re-mix of Ovid’s most joyful metamorphosis is a story about the kind of fluidity that can’t be bottled and sold.” –Scottish Arts Council

“[Smith] shows us unfamiliar beauty within the mundane, as if we were children again. . . . In prose marked by harmonious opposites, she’s childlike and wise, exuberant and subtle, humorously intelligent and provocatively dry.”–The Globe and Mail

“[A] witty, profound, humane paean to passionate love. . . . Highly original, audacious and lyrical, she has become a special writer.” The Sunday Herald

“To read Ali Smith is like being borne up on the wing of a bird in flight.” –The Globe and Mail

“Ovid could hardly be a better fit for Smith’s ethereal and transformative imagination.” –Daily Telegraph

“By the time I finished the book, my heart was beating and tears stood in my eyes, even as I had the biggest smile written all over my face.” – The Observer

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Product Details

Canongate Books
Publication date:
Myths Series
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
4.90(w) x 7.60(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt


Let me tell you about when I was a girl, our grandfather says.

It is Saturday evening; we always stay at their house on Saturdays. The couch and the chairs are shoved back against the walls. The teak coffee table from the middle of the room is up under the window. The floor has been cleared for the backward and forward somersaults, the juggling with oranges and eggs, the how-to-do-a-cartwheel, how-to-stand-on-your-head, how-to-walk-on-your-hands lessons. Our grandfather holds us upside-down by the legs until we get our balance. Our grandfather worked in a circus before he met and married our grandmother. He once did headstands on top of a whole troupe of headstanders. He once walked a tightrope across the Thames. The Thames is a river in London, which is five hundred and twenty-seven miles from here, according to the mileage chart in the RAC book in among our father’s books at home. Oh, across the Thames, was it? our grandmother says. Not across the falls at Niagara? Ah, Niagara, our grandfather says. Now that was a whole other kittle of fish.

It is after gymnastics and it is before Blind Date. Sometimes after gymnastics it is The Generation Game instead. Back in history The Generation Game was our mother’s favourite programme, way before we were born, when she was as small as us. But our mother isn’t here any more, and anyway we prefer Blind Date, where every week without fail a boy chooses a girl from three girls and a girl chooses a boy from three boys, with a screen and Cilla Black in between them each time. Then the chosen boys and girls from last week’s programme come back and talk about their blind date, which has usually been awful, and there is always excitement about whether there’ll be a wedding, which is what it’s called before people get divorced, and to which Cilla Black will get to wear a hat.

But which is Cilla Black, then, boy or girl? She doesn’t seem to be either. She can look at the boys if she wants; she can go round the screen and look at the girls. She can go between the two sides of things like a magician, or a joke. The audience always laughs with delight when she does it.

You’re being ridiculous, Anthea, Midge says shrugging her eyes at me.

Cilla Black is from the sixties, our grandmother says as if that explains everything.

It is Saturday tea-time, after supper and before our bath. It is always exciting to sit in the chairs in the places they usually aren’t. Midge and I, one on each knee, are on our grandfather’s lap and all three of us are wedged into the pushed-back armchair waiting for our grandmother to settle. She drags her own armchair closer to the electric fire. She puts her whole weight behind the coffee table and shoves it over so she can watch the football results. You don’t need the sound up for that. Then she neatens the magazines on the under-rack of the table and then she sits down. Steam rises off teacups. We’ve got the taste of buttered toast in our mouths. At least, I assume we all have it, since we’ve all been eating the same toast, well, different bits of the same toast. Then I start to worry. Because what if we all taste things differently? What if each bit of toast tastes completely different? After all, the two bits I’ve eaten definitely tasted a bit different even from each other. I look round the room, from head to head of each of us. Then I taste the taste in my own mouth again.

So did I never tell you about the time they put me in jail for a week when I was a girl? our grandfather says.

What for? I say.

For saying you were a girl when you weren’t one, Midge says.

For writing words, our grandfather says.

What words? I say.

NO VOTES NO GOLF, our grandfather says. They put us in jail because we wrote it into the golf green with acid, me and my friend. What’s a young girl like you wanting acid for? the chemist asked me when I went to get it.

Grandad, stop it, Midge says.

What’s a girl like you wanting with fifteen bottles of it? he said. I told him the truth, more fool me. I want to write words on the golf course with it, I told him and he sold me it, right enough, but then he went and told Harry Cathcart at the police station exactly who’d been round buying a job lot of acid. We were proud to go to jail, though. I was proud when they came to get me. I said to them all at the police station, I’m doing this because my mother can’t write her name with words, never mind vote. Your great-grandmother wrote her name with Xs. X X X. Mary Isobel Gunn. And when we went on the Mud March, our grandfather says. Boy oh boy. It was called the Mud March because — because why?

Because of some mud, I say.

Because of the mud we got all up the hems of our skirts, our grandfather says.

Grandad, Midge says. Don’t.

You should’ve heard the mix of accents coming out of us all, it was like a huge flock of all the different birds, all in the sky, all singing at once. Blackbirds and chaffinches and seagulls and thrushes and starlings and swifts and peewits, imagine. From all over the country we came, from Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Huddersfield, Leeds, all the girls that worked in clothing, because that’s what most of us did, textiles I mean, and from Glasgow, from Fife, even from right up here we went. Soon they were so afraid of us marching that they made brand new laws against us. They said we could only march in groups of no more than twelve of us. And each group of twelve girls had to be fifty yards away from any other group of twelve. And what do you think they threw at us for marching, what do you think they threw at us when we spoke in front of the great hordes of listening people?

Eggs and oranges, I say. Mud.

Tomatoes and fishheads, Midge says.

And what did we throw at the Treasury, at the Home Office, at the Houses of Parliament? he says.

Fishheads, I say.

I am finding the idea of throwing fishheads at official historic buildings very funny. Our grandfather tightens his hold round me.

No, he says. Stones, to break the windows.

Not very ladylike, Midge says from the other side of his head.

Actually, Miss Midge —, our grandfather says.

My name’s not Midge, Midge says.

Actually, as it happens, we were very ladylike indeed. We threw the stones in little linen bags that we’d made ourselves with our own hands especially to put the stones in. That’s how ladylike we were. But never mind that. Never mind that. Listen to this. Are you listening? Are you ready?

Here we go, our grandmother says.

Did I never tell you about the time when I was a really important, couldn’t-be-done-without part of the smuggling-out-of-the-country of Burning Lily herself, the famous Building-Burning-Girl of the North East?

No, I say.

No, Midge says.

Well, I will then. Will I? our grandfather says.

Yes, I say.

Okay, Midge says.

Are you sure? he says.

Yes! we say together.

Burning Lily, he says, was famous. She was famous for lots of things. She was a dancer, and she was very very beautiful.

Always the eye for the lasses, our grandmother says with her own eyes on the television.

And one day, our grandfather says, on her twenty-first birthday, the day that the beautiful (though not near as beautiful as your grandmother, obviously) the day that the beautiful Burning Lily became a fully fledged grown-up — which is what’s supposed to happen on the day you’re twenty-one — she looked in the mirror and said to herself, I’ve had enough of this. I’m going to change things. So she went straight out and broke a window as a birthday present to herself.

Ridiculous present, Midge says. I’m asking for a Mini Cooper for mine.

But soon she decided that breaking windows, though it was a good start, wasn’t quite enough. So she started setting fire to buildings — buildings that didn’t have any people in them. That worked. That got their attention. She was always being carted off to jail then. And in there, in jail, in her cell, you know what she did?

What? Midge says.

She just stopped eating, he says.

Why? I say and as I say it I taste the toast taste again all through the inside of me.

Because she was like anorexic, Midge says, and had seen too many pictures of herself in magazines.

Because there wasn’t anything else for her to do, our grandfather says to me over the top of Midge’s head. They all did it, to protest, then. We’d all have done it. I’d have done it too. So would you.

Well I wouldn’t, Midge says.

Yes you would. You’d do it too, if it was the only thing you could do. So then they made Burning Lily eat.

How? I said. You can’t make someone eat.

By putting a tube down her throat and by putting food down the tube. Except, they put it down the wrong part of her throat, into her windpipe, by mistake, and they pumped food right into her lungs.

Why? I say.

Uch, Midge says.

Rob, our grandmother says.

They have to know, our grandfather says. It’s true. It happened. And that thing with putting the tube into her windpipe had made her very very ill, so they had to let her out of the jail because she nearly died. And that would have been very bad publicity for the police and the jail and the government. But by the time Burning Lily got better they’d passed a new law which said: As soon as one of those girls has made herself better out there, and isn’t going to die here in jail, on our hands, as if it was us who killed her, we can go straight back out and arrest her again.

But you know what?

What? I say.

What? Midge says.

Burning Lily kept on slipping through their fingers. She kept on getting away with it. She kept on setting fire to the empty buildings.

She was like a lunatic, Midge says.

Only empty buildings, mind, our grandfather says. I will never endanger any human life except my own, she said. I always call out when I go into the building to make sure no one is in it. But I will carry on doing it for as long as it takes to change things for the better. That’s what she said in court. She used lots of different names in court. Lilian. Ida. May. It was before they knew what everyone looked like, like they do today, so she could slip through their fingers like water does if you clench your fist round it. It was before they used film and photos like they do now, to know who everyone is.

I hold up my hand, in a fist. I open it, then close it.

And she kept on doing it, he says. And the police were always after her. And next time, we knew, she’d surely die, she would die if they got her again, because she was too weak to do that starving thing many more times. And one day, now, are you listening?

Yes, we say.

One day, our grandfather says, one of our friends came round to my house and told me: Tomorrow you’ve got to dress up as a message boy.

What’s a message boy? I say.

Shh, Midge says.

I was small, our grandfather says, I was nineteen, but I could pass for twelve or thirteen. And I looked a bit like a boy.

Yeah, Midge says, cause you were one.

Shh, I say.

And I checked through the clothes she’d brought me in the bag, our grandfather says, they were pretty clean, they didn’t smell too bad, they smelt a bit leathery, a bit of the smell of boys.

Uch, Midge says.

What’s the smell of boys? I say.

And it looked likely that they’d fit me. And lo and behold, they did. So I put them on the next morning, and I got into the grocer’s van that stopped for me outside the door. And the girl driving the truck got out, and a boy took over the wheel, and she gave the boy a kiss as she got out. And before she got into the back of the van in under the canvas the girl gave me a rolled-up comic and an apple, and a basket of things, tea, sugar, a cabbage, some carrots. And she said, pull your cap down low and put your head inside the comic now, and start eating at that apple when you get out of the van. So I did those things, I did what she said, I opened the comic at random and held it up in front of me, and the pictures juggled up and down in front of my eyes all the way there, and when we got to the right house the boy driving stopped the van, and the front door of the house opened, and a woman shouted, All right! It’s here! And I went round the back, that’s where message boys were supposed to go, I was down behind the comic, and I took two bites out of the apple, which was a big one, apples were a lot bigger then, back in the days when I was a girl.

This time Midge doesn’t say anything. She is completely listening, like I am.

And in the corridor of the big old house I saw myself in a mirror, except it wasn’t a mirror, and it wasn’t me. It was someone else dressed exactly the same, it was a fine-looking boy wearing the exact same clothes. But he was very very handsome, and that was how I knew he wasn’t me and I wasn’t him.

Rob, our grandmother says.

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