Monday, June 09, 2008

Reader Meets Herself

Erudite Mondays at HalfSoled Boots
Volume 4 Number 1

Ali Smith

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

I knew from page one that this book would be getting as many points as I could give it. The first line of Girl Meets Boy slapped me right in the face...and stayed slapping me until I turned the very last page.

This is the second volume I have read from the Canongate Myth Series, which I had feared would consistently disappoint. Remember The Penelopiad? Well, Girl Meets Boy did not, in fact, disappoint. It clobbered me. It busted my cogs. It blew me out of the water and left me perched precariously on a tiny rock, shaking with adrenaline, my linen tunic soaked and seaweed in my hair.

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.

You may have heard Ovid's tale, from the Metamorphoses, of Iphis and Ianthe. Iphis' mother dressed her as a boy to prevent her dynastic father murdering her because of her sex. Raised as a boy, Iphis falls in love with the beautiful Ianthe. On the eve of their wedding, Iphis and her mother beseech Isis' intervention. Isis transforms Iphis into a man, the wedding is a success, and they live happily ever after.

Midge, my sweet fierce cynical heart, our grandfather says. You're going to have to learn the kind of hope that makes things history. Otherwise there'll be no good hope for your own grand truths and no good truths for your own grandchildren.

My name's Imogen, Midge says and gets down off his knee.

This retelling does interesting things with the original myth, but that's not the best part of the book. The best part is this: characters in Girl Meets Boy transcend and challenge their gender repeatedly - sometimes subtly, sometimes obviously. Nearing the end of the book, gender as an identity ceased to have meaning. The girlness of boys, and the boyness of girls, made it irrelevant.

Way back in the Celtic tribes, our grandmother says, women had the franchise. You always have to fight to get the thing you've lost.

There is only one thing in this book that I wish had been handled differently. The heroine's sister, Midge, is appalled by her sister's emerging sexual identity. I wish that the author hadn't endowed Midge with quite so many hangups, issues, and baggage. I think the reader is meant to feel a certain way about her - namely, that she is tiresome, ignorant, selfish and narrow-minded, and that her homophobia is all of a piece with the rest. It's all too easy to see that she is going to be the fly in the ointment: she is exercise-obsessed, bulimic, repressed, success-crazy, and intolerably superior. I would have liked the resident homophobe, who is obviously headed for an enlightenment, to be less typecast.

He was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen in my life.

But he looked really like a girl.

She was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen in my life.

I won't pretend everyone will love this book. The fact that I love it only proves that few others of my acquaintance will. But, if you think you can handle the feeling of being upended and shaken until your culture falls out, and feeling your mind expand to consider new ideas, by all means seek out Girl Meets Boy.

One last quote, from the opening page before the book begins:

It is the mark of a narrow world that it mistrusts the undefined.
-Joseph Roth


(HalfSoledBoots Highly Specialised Book Rating System [see what I did there?])
Girl Meets Boy gets:

Reread? Hell, yes.
Given as a Gift to Others? Yes. Carefully.
Bookplate? Yes because if this book walks I'll have to shell out for another one. Or two, just in case.



knititch said...

you certainly get things done. read, knit and bring up children. i am impressed. and your tuesday mess is my greatest joy :-))

the book sounds great.

Dave Hingsburger said...

The book sounds - odd, but in a good way. I'd like to give one of these a shot, this may be the one to try.

Jo said...

So cool - one my library actually has! It's on my reserve list now.

lizbon said...

a) I never read books just because of a review.

b) I am buying this one.

Shan said...

knititch, sometimes I wonder if something's gonna give....then I realise, Oh wait, it already did. I'll do a Messy Tuesday post tomorrow especially for you.

Dave, yes it's odd. Hence the appeal.

lizbon, I am so pleased. You won't be disappointed.

kate said...

I want to read this book, if not for all the other reasons then just because you wrote this about it:

"the feeling of being upended and shaken until your culture falls out..."


mel said...

Wow, sounds like a great read - I'm intrigued. I have found myself not being able to read much (not much requiring energy at least) in the last couple years, but I'm missing it. And if someone gives me another damn what's his name tearjerker to read I may throw it (when the giver isn't looking!) Someone tagged me for a great book meme, I will do it sometime here, but that too requires thought & energy ;) But I know exactly who I'll tag if you haven't done it already!

Dave Hingsburger said...

OK Mel, I have to know -- what are these tear jerkers of which you speak?

Rachel said...

Found your blog a bit ago through Mel's site and have enjoyed reading it ever since. Finally getting around to actually commenting! I'm always on the lookout for unique books to read and this one sounds like it needs to be added to the ever-growing list. Thanks for the review!

Tabatha said...

Great review! I am going to keep my eye out for this one.

Gwen said...

ooooh, I will go read this straight away.