He was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen in my life.
But he looked really like a girl.
She was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen in my life.
When Blur released their single Girls & Boys (apologies for the obnoxious advert preceding the youtube video) I remember thinking something had changed. Here you had a mainstream pop song with lyrics hinting at shifts in gender roles – with the caveat that Blur is describing Britain’s boozy yoof culture, not some progressive pansexual vision of the future.
Still, I thought to myself, it’s a start!
Ali Smith’s short novel concerns itself with love regardless of its form. Anthea Gunn has been wrangled a job by her sister with an omnivorous corporation that is looking to establish itself as a global water monopoly. When gazing out of a window during an insufferable ‘creative’, brainstorming session, with the attendants encouraged to free associate a new brand name for bottled water targeted at a Scottish market, Anthea witnesses a figure in a kilt deface a advertising poster for the company with political slogans. The sloganeer is actually a woman named Robin Goodman. Anthea falls head over heels in love with her.
Imogen Gunn feels distraught not only at her sister having walked out of her well-paid position with Pure, but by the sudden revelation that her sister is gay. She is not even able to think the word lesbian. Imogen tries to think what could have caused Anthea to become attracted to women. She never showed any evidence of it before. In fact her sister had had more boyfriends than her growing up. Both sisters went to school with Robin years before and Imogen remembers how she was bullied for being different, although she never really stopped to consider why. Now Anthea is in a relationship with her. She feels threatened by her sister’s choice in a partner, her emerging political consciousness and contempt for the boozing male workers at Pure, who chuckle at the pub while making fun of women just like Anthea. Why can’t she be normal, like her?
Of course Imogen is not quite normal at all. Frighteningly thin, blinded to the bigotry and sexism that surrounds her she grows increasingly resentful for her sister’s choices until forced to take a moral stand herself. Water is an essential requirement for life and yet her employers are trying to control and own it as a private resource. Robin’s political subversiveness is infectious and soon both of the Gunns find themselves questioning the lives they lead, whether any progress to a fairer world is at all possible in today’s society?
Smith draws extensively on both classical mythology, particularly the story of Iphis and Ianthe in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as well as Scottish folklore. She positions modern-day Inverness as being on the cusp of returning to its Enlightenment-era progressiveness, where ordinary people are in a position to object to the callous practices of immoral conglomerates.
The book’s theme is that water and love are both things which cannot be sold, bought or controlled, nor should they be. Love is reduced to anonymous sex – there is a particularly oppressive scene in a pub with Imogen becoming increasingly alarmed at the aggressive manner of two male colleagues. Water is taken from farmers in India to benefit globe-straddling Western companies and headed by unfeeling creeps such as the buzz-word spouting spokesman for Pure, Keith. In her acknowledgements, Smith recommends books such as Blue Gold by Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke and H20: A Biography of Water by Philip Ball. This fusion of political consciousness and mythology makes for a passionate and gripping read.
This is also a very romantic novel and Imogen’s dismay at her sister’s new lover is actually very funny, a stream of consciousness rant prickly in its paranoid suspicion of how the ‘conversion’, was achieved (there’s a very funny moment when she wonders whether Buffy the Vampire Slayer was at fault), while at the same time remaining very amusing. Despite her horror she cannot help noting how loving and gentle Robin and Anthea are together.
A fantastic book, which made me feel alive. Ali Smith is someone to watch in the future.
And there we have it – my two hundredth review. Phew. Two hundred days and me turning 31 on Sunday. Hopefully I won’t hit my 32nd birthday doing this. Cheers for reading folks, tomorrow is day two hundred and one!