Updating Ovid’s myth of Iphis and Ianthe, the noted British author slyly explores a blurring of the sexual divide.
Novelist and short-story writer Smith (The Accidental, 2006, etc.) makes her contribution to a series of modernized myths via a brief narrative that limits the impact of her multiple themes. But there’s still plenty of her customary stylistic and intellectual playfulness, as well as some bravura passages, in this story of sisters Imogen and Anthea Gunn, one in thrall to the Pure company that is busily packaging Scottish water—“the perfect commodity”—and the other in love with Robin Goodman, the graffiti artist she meets defacing Pure’s company sign, leaving the signature IPHISOL. Robin is a girl, as was Iphis, the Cretan teenager who passed as a boy, fell in love with Ianthe, became betrothed to her but panicked over the question of satisfying her sexually after the wedding. Iphis’s prayer to the gods was answered: She was changed into a male. Girl thus met boy in a whole new way, as Smith underlines in a sexual riff—“I was a she was a he was a we”—that further mingles gender boundaries. For the other sister, boy (Paul, a colleague) meets girl (Imogen) after a trip which has revealed Pure’s not-so-spotless ambitions for global domination. Paul first shows Imogen some new, bold, feminist graffiti, then takes her to bed. There’s an appropriately happy ending: “Reader, I married him/her.”
The politics don’t especially convince, but the comic, smart, spirited tale-spinning often amuses.