And it was always the stories that needed the telling that gave us the rope we could cross any river with. They balanced us high above any crevasse. They made us be natural acrobats. They made us brave. They met us well. They changed us. It was in their nature to.
from ‘Girl Meets Boy‘ by Ali Smith
It’s been such a good reading year; I’ve been pulled from one book straight into the next, hit after hit. But then, just like that, nothing was working. I started stalling part-way through books — the middle of A Sport and a Pastime; the start of Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, which I was enjoying, but couldn’t commit to. Somehow the joy had gone. And once the joy had gone, I found less and less time to read. I re-read ‘The Lady with the Dog‘. Twice. I felt like I could keep re-reading Chekhov forever. But then I remembered Ali Smith, and the joy was back.
How could I have forgotten the light, playful, exuberant texture of her work? The way she makes words dance and fizz? How she can make even a single short sentence into something unexpected and tingling: ‘I went outside mournful, and I hit pure air.’?
Girl Meets Boy is part of the Canongate Myths series: a modern re-working of the myth of Iphis and Ianthe from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Iphis, a girl brought up as a boy, is changed into a boy by the goddess Isis on the eve of her/his marriage to Ianthe. Smith’s version has a fairytale feel that swept me off my feet from its opening line: ‘Let me tell you about when I was a girl, our grandfather says.’ Well, who could resist that? Girl Meets Boy has more than a little of a Shakespearian comedy about it — genders blur and merge; doubles and puns abound. But beneath the dazzling surface of her words, Smith lays a steely core of morality and of political engagement in its most human terms.
And the sex! Did I mention the sex? (Am I going to receive a surge of misguided readers if I mention sex three times in a row?) But it really is the best sex I can remember reading — swirling, associative, dazzling, shape-shifting, playful, climactic! — here’s a just a snippet,
Her beautiful head was down at my breast, she caught me between her teeth just once, she put the nip into nipple like the cub of a fox would, down we went, no wonder they call it an earth, it was loamy, it was good, it was what good meant, it was earthy, it was what earth meant, it was the underground of everything, the kind of soil that cleans things.
— Ali Smith was nominated for the Literary Review’s Bad Sex award for it, so maybe it all depends on taste. But writing about sex is perhaps bound to be laughable out of context — and possibly you just have to write any extended sex scene in literary fiction to find yourself on the Bad Sex award shortlist (in so many novels sex is elided, glossed over rather than dramatised). Anyway, she didn’t win (Norman Mailer did).
And this isn’t meant to be about the joy of sex, but the joy of reading, the seductive joy of storytelling, the joy of ‘the stories that needed the telling that gave us the rope to cross any river with’. I’m so happy to have that joy back.