People have been telling me to read Ali Smith for years, but I haven’t yet got round to any of her novels, not even How to Be Both, which has been urged enthusiastically on me by my friend I. However, I hope to exculpate myself now, because I’ve finally embarked on Smith’s oeuvre in the form of Girl Meets Boy, one of the Canongate Myths series. I found it charming, if not overwhelming: it’s a sweet story of first love and how to have courage; a dreamlike tale of how we love most truly when we love the person rather than the outward shell. Based on Ovid’s story of Iphis, it uses the Scottish city of Inverness as the stage on which to thumb its nose at gender norms.
Anthea moves back to live with her sister Midge after a period of difficulty. It isn’t ever quite explained, but she seems to have suffered a nervous breakdown or other trauma, and she comes to find sanctuary in the house that once belonged to the girls’ beloved grandparents. Anthea remembers her grandfather’s wonderful, fabulous stories (‘Let me tell you about when I was a girl…’) and feels those lost days touching something deep inside her: a love of the wonderful and the strange, a sensitivity to myth and the fables of the world. Unfortunately, Midge has always been more practical, more centred in the here and now, and more concerned with what people think. Landed with a dreamy sister who needs a house, a job and some respectability, Midge takes the responsibility of Anthea upon herself – as she always does. She even finds Anthea a prized job at Pure, the new water bottling plant that’s opened in town. She’s done absolutely everything. And is Anthea grateful? Does she attempt to behave like a normal person? No.
Instead, Anthea behaves erratically and then, to Midge’s horror, falls headlong in love with the most unsuitable person possible: Robin Goodman. As if having a boy’s name wasn’t bad enough, Robin Goodman has now made a habit of painting environmental slogans around the town, often directly attacking Pure. And, even worse, Robin Goodman is definitely one of those. And, if Anthea’s started hanging around with her, soon everyone will know that Anthea is one of those too, and then what kind of credit is Midge going to have? What are her chances of catching the eye of Keith, Pure’s charismatic creative director, if everyone’s sniggering about her sister’s relationship with Robin Goodman? It’s enough to drive Midge to palpitations.
Smith switches between the narrative voices of the two sisters, Anthea luxuriant and warm and dreamlike, rendered expansive by love; and Midge more uptight, repressed, constantly second-guessing herself and those around her, desperate to belong, to be noticed, to be valued. As Anthea’s relationship with Robin progresses, this beautifully boyish girl, who looks like a girlish boy, introduces profound change into both sisters’ lives, as they come to look more keenly at what life offers and what it has the potential to provide. Smith keeps the fantastical throttled back – apart from one glorious outpouring towards the end – but her sensitive story shows that miracles can happen even in everyday life – and even if the miracle is as simple as one gaze locking with another, and knowing that here is a soul to come home to.
Beautifully simple, and well characterised, the story pits the intelligent and eloquent Robin against the narrow-minded people who populate Midge’s own world. A plea for tolerance, for open-mindedness, and love in all its forms, this is a tribute to all those who have the courage to open their souls and live in a way that’s true, rather than convenient. It’s elegant but brief and somewhat ephemeral in its impact, I feel. But I liked it. And so now you have to tell me: where should I go for my first taste of Smith’s other work? How to Be Both is a given; but which of her other novels do you think I’d get on with?