More of a novella than a novel having only five compact chapters this book turned out to be a hidden treasure buried in the bargain section of my favorite bookstore. It was the author’s name that first caught my attention as I have read and admired some of Ali Smith’s short stories. The novel begins with this interesting first sentence: “Let me tell you about when I was a girl, our grandfather says.” I bought the book and took it home and it sat in my inventory for two years but it did not deserve such neglect as I found out when I pulled it off the shelf and started to read last week. I read it very slowly because it was too good to just rattle on through.
This book is part of a project to re-write in modern terms traditional myths of Greece, Scandinavia, China or from anywhere in fact. The authors who have taken on this project are all well known and very accomplished and according the fly leaf include Donna Tartt whose novel The Goldfinch was the subject of my last post.
Ali Smith chose to re-write the story of Iphis from the ninth book of Ovid’s Metamorphous. The story of Iphis is a ‘happily ever after’ one set in ancient Crete but has a rather rocky beginning. While Iphis was still nestled cozily in the womb of her mother, Telethusa, her father insisted that if the baby were born a girl she not be allowed to live. Telethusa prayed to the Egyptian goddess Isis who promised to make everything right whether the baby was a girl or a boy. The baby was of course born a girl and to protect her from pending death Telethusa hid her identity and raised her as a boy. Years later Iphis fell in love with the beautiful Ianthe, the daughter of one of her father’s friends. It was arranged for them to be married but Iphis recognized that the reality of her hidden female side would be an obstacle to their future happiness and she despaired. However the day before the wedding the goddess Isis made good on her promise to Telethusa and miraculously changed Iphis into a young man. The wedding went ahead and the couple lived in marital paradise forever thereafter.
Ali Smith’s re-invention of this myth is told as the story of two sisters, Midge and Anthea living in the town of Inverness, Scotland and how they discovered true, romantic love. The first myth that is spun around them is one their grandfather creates. He tells the story of Burning Lily, a factory worker who fought for women’s rights. In his story he helped rescue Burning Lily from imprisonment by exchanging places with her so that she, disguised as a boy, could escape the country altogether. It is Midge who realizes this story is an invention as her grandfather would not have been born when these events occurred. If you think about Scottish folklore the story is not unlike that of Bonnie Prince Charles who escaped the English by dressing up as a woman. The grandparents decide to buy a sailboat and sail far away until they are thought to have perished and so the two granddaughters inherit their house.
Midge works in the advertising department of an international water bottling company. She treads carefully in a world where the opinion of men is valued more than that of women. She finds a position for Anthea within the same firm but Anthea quits the day she meets Robin a beautiful girl dressed in a kilt painting a protest sign on the façade of the water bottling plant’s office. They fall in love and it is Robin who narrates the story of Iphis as Anthea tries to appreciate the wonderment of her newly discovered sexuality. After hearing the story of Iphis Anthea asks if myths arise spontaneously from the collective imagination of society or if they are deliberately created by individuals who try to manipulate society financially. In the latter case she is thinking of the water-bottling conglomerate whose directors want to convince the entire world water is better; even purer if it comes from a bottle.
There is a whole chapter entitled ‘You’ consisting of Midge engaged in an internal monologue as she tries to come to terms with Anthea’s having fallen unexpectedly in love with another girl. The chapter ends with her spending a very degrading evening in a pub with two loutish male colleagues who have respect for neither her nor the work she does. Midge is eventually awakened to the hopelessness of ever being appreciated by her employer and finds love with her friend Paul. In the meantime Anthea and Robin are busy painting protest signs all over Inverness because some things have not changed in thousands of years. One of their signs reads: “ACROSS THE WORLD TWO MILLION GIRLS KILLED BEFORE BIRTH OR AT BIRTH BECAUSE THEY WEREN’T BOYS.”
The last chapter is devoted to an imaginary summer wedding under the trees where many mythical characters including Scotland’s famous Nessy come to offer their best wishes . (As an aside, revealing the ending does not spoil this book because it is the course of the book not it’s eventual ending that is the source of its enjoyment) Thus on the one hand this is a simply told story of love and redemption and then again it is not so simple. Ali Smith could have brought the myth of Iphis up to date by having one of the characters transgender but in many ways that would be a lot less subtle. Instead she has created a multilayered story like a tightly pleated work of origami shaped like a flower. Something worth reading just to see how it all unfolds.