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- The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller - 15 April, 2013
Ali Smith, Girl Meets Boy (Canongate Books, 2008) £8.99
‘But I stared at my grandparents in their photo, with their arms round each other and their heads together, and I wished that my own bones were unbound, I wish they were mingling, picked clean by fish, with the bones of another body, a body my bones and heart and soul had loved with unfathomable certainty for decades, and both of us down deep now, lost to everything but the fact of bare bones on a dark seabed.’
Girl Meets Boy is about love and rebellion. It’s funny how those things fit together so easily. Some of the first big teenage lies I told my parents were directly related to sexuality: saying that I was staying at a friend’s house, when I was really going to my first Pride event halfway across the country; or that my bus was late when in actual fact I had missed it making out with my first, illicit girlfriend in the back room of a dingy working men’s pub (classy); or coming home completely arse-over-tit drunk and swearing on my life that I’d ‘only had two Bacardi Breezers’ instead of the Absinthe bought for me by hot Goths (I had a phase).
We create our own mythology, I think, as queer people. Most of us (especially women) are raised to believe in the ideal state of things: girl meets boy, girl marries boy, girl spawns offspring, everybody dies (dark) and the circle of life continues. But sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. Sometimes girl meets girl, or boy meets boy. Sometimes our bodies don’t match who we are inside our heads. Sometimes we don’t want to marry, or have children, or have that house in the country. Sometimes even the thought of those things feels suffocating.
In contrast, queer is fluidity. It is the conscientious rejection of inflexible, exclusive social norms. Our existence, our love, can be rebellion on its own. Girl Meets Boy involves all of these things. In Inverness, two sisters learn to rebel in their own ways. Anthea and Midge’s idiosyncratic personalities – the dreamer, the neurotic – are demonstrated by Smith with linguistic versatility and a great deal of humour. Midge’s reaction to her sister becoming what she refers to, haltingly, as ‘a gay’ is equal parts hilarious and sweet. Her discomfort about what the neighbours might think is belied by concern for her sister’s well being, as she worries that: ‘My sister is going to grow up into a dissatisfied, older, predatory, totally dried-up abnormal woman like Judi Dench in that film Notes on a Scandal.’
Aren’t we all, sweetie?
As one of those lucky/annoying types who fell in love with the stream of consciousness narrative technique while reading Mrs. Dalloway in school (Virginia Woolf is my literary bff), I really enjoyed Smith’s style. A story about love should be reminiscent of the feeling of love, in all its exuberance and joy, and Girl Meets Boy meets that challenge. It is clear water, open sky, fresh air, poetry. It is Modernism mixed with Romance, and at its heart lies one of Ovid’s thankfully less nasty Metamorphoses, Iphis and Ianthe’s tale of love and gender fluidity.
Anthea’s relationship with the eco-warrior Robin is refreshing in its lack of drama (I’m not sure if you know much about lesbians in popular culture, but we tend to die a lot). Despite initially thinking that Robin was a boy, Anthea doesn’t do any soul-searching on finding out the truth, instead thinking that, ‘She was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen in my life.’ Their subsequent relationship is incredibly sweet, and what was referred to by Jackie Kay as ‘the best sex I’ve read in years’ completely robbed me of my scepticism. For a scene almost entirely bereft of physical details, I found myself holding my breath at the end.
What I didn’t expect to see was a political message. Smith uses the Iphis myth to talk about the millions of baby girls that are killed worldwide because of their gender, and weaves in information about bottled water companies ruining the fresh water supply of communities in rural India, in a manner that is natural and relevant to the plot. In this the novel is tied together intelligently, combining all love and rebellion and mythology, and brought to a point where Iphis and Ianthe can be the message girls or boys or both or neither.
A beautiful novel, give it a try.