Ovid’s myth of Iphis, book 9 of his Metamorphoses, tells the story of a girl who is raised as a boy falling in love with a female friend that she grows up with. The other girl is unaware of her betrothed’s secret and is never to find out, with the gods granting a change of gender the night before the marriage and avoiding the need for any awkward bedtime explanations. When Ali Smith was asked to take part in Canongate’s Myths series you can almost imagine her glee when she thought of this story. It has many of the ingredients she likes to work with. But, rather than a retelling, Smith takes the basis of the story and turns it into a very modern work based on gender fluidity, homosexuality, family, and corporate responsibility.
While two sisters, Imogen and Anthea, are living together in a house left to them by their grandma, Anthea meets and falls in love with a woman who she originally thinks is a man. This opens the door for the type of conversations that are often central to Smith’s work but differs from some of her other stories when it brings in Imogen’s difficult feelings around her sister’s new lifestyle. As Imogen struggles to except her sister’s sexuality, she herself is pulled into a misogynistic office culture that many readers will recognise.
Smith weaves these stories together at the same time as raising questions about the ethical choices of big businesses. This strand sees both sisters working for a bottled water company and trying to find ways to market their project to the masses, before Anthea’s new love interest sweeps in and starts an innovative protest.
Like most of Smith’s works, it is as much about the playful presentation and the language used as it is about the story. In fact, if any writer was going to be included in the Myths series it would have to be Smith. She writes with a versality and a touch of magic that many ancient myths depended on, but also makes everything she writes relevant and important to the world we live in today.
Any Cop?: Like almost all of Smith’s works, you’ll get enough out of this if you just concentrate on the power of the prose. Add to that a questioning and interrogative look at the things that inform prejudices and bigotry, and we have another Smith work that stands out when compared to her contemporaries.