Posted by: Corri van de Stege | April 27, 2008

Girl meets boy and how to appreciate literature

In Greek mythology Telethusa and Ligdus were a couple living in Crete and when Telethusa becomes pregnant Ligdus threatens to kill the child if it turns out not to be a boy, because they cannot afford a girl.   The mother is of course devastated and prays to the gods who tell her everything will be fine, whatever happens.   Of course, the baby is a girl, but the mother brings her up as a boy and no one knows  (you do wonder,  don’t you??).  She is called Iphis.  Ovid writes about this myth in the Metamorphoses, stories about transformations. Iphis falls in love with her childhood friend, Ianthe, who is a girl of course and this ultimately gets resolved by Iphis metamorphosing into a boy, after more prayer to the gods. 


This is the basis for Ali Smith’s wonderful novel Girl meets Boy but then in a modern setting.  It is about girls, women, love and how girls try and somehow cope with a number of bewildering choices that need to be made. I started reading the book as I travelled to London on the train, kept reading on the tube, went to my meetings, came back on the train and finished it. (I had no laptop with me, so could not be distracted.)   It was one of my best journeys ever, even if I did not get back till 10 at night.  The style of writing is refreshingly different and it is what James Wood, in How Fiction Works refers to as the free indirect style.  This is ‘what happens in most modern stories since Flaubert [who, Wood says, invented this] when a novelist wants us to inhabit a character’s confusion, but will not ‘correct’ that confusion, refuses to make clear what that confusion would look like’ (p.12).  It allows us to identify with the characters and Ali Smith does that wonderfully well.  The story is of two sisters, Scottish, and we are taken along with them, falling in love, working in an (ethically) wrong company and their responses, and confusions.  We know, even think their thoughts, they’re put in brackets;  for example (I cannot bring myself to say the word)  (My little sister is going to have a terribly sad life).  This is hilarious at times but conveys so well the way our thoughts jump from one thing to another, and these thoughts are interspersed with first person narrative that keeps you on the move, time passing, you’re in there all the time.  And then the author comes back in, telling us what someone is thinking.  But the gap is always very small.   It’s a lovely book, go and get it.  I am definitely going to try some of the others that are published in the Myth series, by Chinua Achebe, Margaret Atwood, and others.


At the same time, as you may have guessed I am totally engrossed by James Wood How Fiction Works’, which provides wonderful insights into what makes a novel great, how the language works, e.g. ’so the novelist is always working with at least three languages.  There is the author’s own language, style, perceptual equipment, and so on; there is the character’s presumed language, style, perceptual equipment and so on; and there is what we would call the language of the world – the language which fiction inherits before it gets to turn it into novelistic style, the language of daily speech, of newspapers, of offices, of advertising, of the blogosphere and text messaging’.    How right this is and what wonderful insights into character development, style and many more.  Definitely a book for the bookshelf of any aspiring writer, or anyone interested in literature and how great stories work.  I shall pick this one up from the shelf over and over again. 


  1. These both sound like books I need to read. I have an collection of short stories by Ali Smith, but I haven’t read them yet.

    And as a reader who also dabbles in writing fiction, I think How Fiction Works is a must read!

  2. I am more reader than writer, but it sounds like How Fiction Works would be of equal benefit to both. I’ll seek it out.
    I’ve not read the Ali Smith but on your recommendation will pick it up. (You do a lovely job of bringing it to life.) I have read a couple of others in this series on myth. I hope you will share your thoughts on Atwood’s Penelopiad if you choose it. I admire most of what Atwood has written, but this one simply did not work for me. I don’t have a problem with the feminist re-telling at all. In fact I’m a big fan of other similar projects like Anne Sexton’s Transformations (fairy tales) and Jean Rhys’s The Wide Sargasso Sea (Jane Eyre), but I found Atwood’s Penelope and the telling itself cloying. I had to force myself to finish the book. Normally, I would spend some time trying to pin down what was amiss for me. In this case, I couldn’t wait to simply move on. Well, now I’ve probably poisoned the well. Sorry! TJ

  3. Ali Smith is one of my favorite authors. I have ‘Girl Meets Boy’, but haven’t read it yet. I must say, though, it has one of the best opening lines I think I’ve ever read!

  4. After a period where I’ve gone from a pacemaker implant to problems with my PC, I’ve come back to this site to check it’s keeping its high standard as to book critics.

    I must now try and get that long list of books you have recommended, seachanges, little by little of course.

  5. Ravenous Reader: yes definitely, if you dabble like I do, James Wood is for you – even if you don’t 🙂
    TJ: I love all Atwood and I’ll see if I can get hold of a copy – you don’t sound too encouraging though? Maybe I’ll get one of the others first…
    Ex Libris: yes, that opening sentence – it’s quite startling and I was going to mention it but don’t want to spoil the fun
    Jose: so glad to see you back, and hopefully you are well? Have missed your company x

  6. Everything is going to schedule, seachanges, thank you so much.

  7. Hope you keep on top of it all Jose and look forward to your visits. x

  8. As you may know, seachanges, this is one of my “haunts”. Thank you for your kindness. I expect I’ll be given the “kick-off” next 9th.

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