Girl Meets Boy, by Ali Smith

A change for the better

The myth of Iphis is one of the happier of Ovid's metamorphoses: the girl raised as a boy to avoid her father's wrath falls in love with another girl, upon which her gender is changed by the sympathetic goddess Isis to enable them to marry. It's a felicitous story among the accounts of rapes and murders, the agony of bodily transformation. In this modern-day reinterpretation, Ali Smith, with humour and typical linguistic versatility, explores issues of homophobia, corporate and social responsibility and the sheer vertiginous feeling of falling in love.

Two sisters, Anthea and Imogen, live in the small Scottish town in which they grew up, in a house left to them by eccentric grandparents who sailed to Europe on a whim and never returned. They had tried to pass on their brand of optimism to their granddaughters: "You're going to have to learn the kind of hope that makes things history."

At work, however – which for both sisters means the petrified, subdued Creative team at Pure, a local bottled water company run by unscrupulous executives – hope is in short supply. Midge tries to fit in, putting up with sexist male co-workers. Ambition bites hard; weight drops worryingly from her. Her only real friend is Paul – but, horror of horrors, she thinks he might be gay. Diffident Anthea skulks and dreams her way through her days, until the appearance of a very attractive kilted protester trespassing Pure's premises – eco-warrior Iphisol, aka Robin – tips the balance.

Robin is one of Smith's specialities, a mysterious, smooth-talking, desirable female catalyst. She "had a girl's toughness. She had a boy's gentleness. She was as meaty as a girl. She was as graceful as a boy..." . Soon she and Anthea embark on a gleeful urban guerrilla rampage against convention and consumerism, and an even more interesting investigation of sexuality. Midge is comically appalled: "My little sister is going to grow up into a dissatisfied older predatory totally dried up abnormal woman like Judi Dench in the film Notes on a Scandal" – until an urgent concern emerges in the form of a promotion at Pure. Having come up with a new brand of water, Eau Caledonia, Midge is invited to a bunker-like think-tank known as Base Camp, where her boss, the menacing Keith, confides Pure's long-term strategy for global domination and exploitation. Midge's role will be to lie publicly about the company's intentions.

Girl Meets Boy is a delicate tale with a solid message of conscientious objection at its heart. It reaches a joyful conclusion in which the formalised pairing off of couples is more reminiscent of Shakespearean comedy than the gruesome imagery of Ovid. Keith enquires of his team: " How, precisely, do we bottle imagination?" Effervescent retellings such as this perhaps provide the answer.

Canongate, £12.99

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