Sexual mutability

<strong>Girl Meets Boy</strong>

Ali Smith <em>Canongate, 176pp, £12.99</em>

Anthea and Midge are sisters who work for Pure, a brand expanding into every conceivable market. As Midge dreams of Pure Base Camp, a corporate promised land, Anthea wanders Inverness feeling lost.

It’s a long way from their magical childhood and gender-swapping grandparents’ tales of Burning Lily, popular agitator and arsonist.

Robin, a female graffiti activist in a full kilt, will change Anthea’s life, reveal her lesbianism, and confirm her distrust of everything corporate. The transformation causes Midge great discomfort.

Ali Smith’s contribution to Canongate’s Myths series, which has already produced Margaret Atwood’s successful Penelopiad, reworks Book IX of Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Iphis is transgendered by Isis so she may marry the woman she loves. It’s an elegant point of departure, and Girl Meets Boy makes much of the trope of sexual mutability – but it is Midge who undergoes the most miraculous metamorphosis when she learns that Base Camp is just a house in Milton Keynes.

Midge’s conversion to tolerance is unconvincing and undermines the whole work. The hermetic style and the enigma of the grandparents’ cross-genderism raise expectations of mystery and psychological subtlety. When these go unmet, what had started with a bang ends with a whimper.