Friday, March 26, 2010

Review: The Girl With Glass Feet

Ali Shaw's The Girl With Glass Feet is one of the most beautiful debut novels I've read in some time. The layered fable, which takes place in the past and the present, is set in St. Hauda's Land, an archipelago way up north (we never find out where exactly it is) where strange things happen. It's a dark and evocative novel about transformation, loss, and the things that trap us in the past.

The girl with the glass feet is Ida Mclaird, a visitor to St. Hauda's from the mainland. On her first visit she runs into Henry Fuwa, a hermit, and sees him with a small moth-like creature that has the body of a bull. He also mentions, in passing, "Would you believe… there are glass bodies here, hidden in the bog water?"

Ida returns home and realizes that her lower extremities are turning into glass. Thinking that Henry may have a clue about her condition, she heads back to St. Hauda's to find him. While there, she meets Midas Crook, a young, shy, photographer whose help she enlists in finding Henry. It's a simple premise, as many fairy tales are, but Shaw wraps the past around his characters in a way that makes the narrative neat but the relationships messy.

On the archipelago, Ida is staying in the cottage of her dead mother's old friend Carl, who was in love with her and knew Midas' father. We also learn that Henry had an affair years ago with Midas' mother, who turned into a recluse after Midas' father committed suicide. Shaw uses flashbacks to explore the relationship between Midas and his father (also named Midas), and gives readers insight into why Midas senior did what he did (he was also turning to glass, beginning with his heart), information that his son never learns. We see how quickly opinions can be formed without access to all the necessary information, and how difficult, even impossible, it can be to let go of these initial impressions.

Ida's mysterious plight is, like any serious illness, a catalyst for confronting long-held beliefs and finally talking about those things buried beneath the surface. In this novel, that includes Midas' overwhelming anger against his father, a tentative love affair between Ida and Midas, and Carl's suffocating love for Ida's long-dead mother. But Shaw, by giving Ida a strange problem, acknowledges that this isn't simply a metaphor for ilness; Henry tells Midas "This isn’t a disease. The glass is now a part of her." Turning to glass, becoming see-through and open to the world, isn't necessarily a bad thing if viewed symbolically, as Shaw makes his characters realize in different ways throughout the novel. It also roots his work in the tradition of fairy tales, making the novel feel like it was glossed over by Hans Christian Andersen — in a good way.

It's a compelling work, steeped in meaning and told elegantly. I had difficulty with Shaw's early chapters, which were heavy with description of outdoor scenes, white animals, and dark shadows. But these descriptions, less frequent as the book progresses, serve both to create a stark, harsh setting for the novel and to offer us a metaphor for the crushing isolation that can occur when you don't follow your heart, as none of the characters in the novel are wont to do. The color at the end of the book, for both the characters and us, makes it all worth it.

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