Atlantic Books, 2009
I picked up The Girl with Glass Feet knowing nothing about the book other than that it was a work of magical realism, which (sub)genre I was seeking out at the time. Now, I am very glad that my wanderings through Waterstones led me to this book. For Ali Shaw’s debut novel turned out to be an affecting, thoughtful meditation upon relationships, their fragility, and the manner in which they endure.
The novel is set on a fictional archipelago, St. Huada’s Land, which in its chill isolation is somewhat reminiscent of the Hebrides, but which will not allow itself to be pinned down as a direct analogy of any existing place. Shaw evokes the islands with beautiful descriptive prose, the narration showing an eye for detail that would be very much at home in a realist work, and yet the lyrical features of the language also ensure that St. Huada’s Land retains an atmosphere of dreaminess and mystery. This both aids and abets the fantastical occurrences that happen in this isolated location: Shaw’s depiction of St. Huada’s Land as a space on the edges – both physically, in its sea-bound location, and psychologically, in that it acts as a harbour for a certain quality of lost soul – enables the reader (and indeed the characters) to more readily accept the preternatural elements that leak into the tale.
The novel centres around two main protagonists: Midas Crook, a shy photographer born and bred on St. Huada’s Land, and Ida MacLaird, a former free spirit who, after a trip to the islands the previous summer, has found herself afflicted with a bizarre malaise – her feet are turning slowly into glass. She has returned to St. Huada’s Land to find a cure, seeking a man (Henry Fuwa) she met during her former visit whom she is convinced knows something about the archipelago’s strange properties. She and Midas meet by chance one day, and, taken with curiosity about one another, become friends. After finding out about Ida’s affliction, Midas tries to help her find a remedy before the rest of her body succumbs to the strange transformation.
At its heart, The Girl with Glass Feet is a romance: it investigates the tentative budding of love between Midas and Ida as each of them struggle to come to terms with their respective problems. Ida obviously has the most pressing concerns of the two. Formerly a keen traveller, she finds herself increasingly dependent as the change comes over her; her biggest challenge is to retain her strength of spirit and proactive outlook while her body increasingly betrays her. Midas, meanwhile, endures an ongoing mental struggle as he tries to break free of harmful memories of his now-dead father, also tellingly named Midas Crook. Midas Senior haunts his son’s life and especially impacts upon Midas’s social confidence and his attempts to form relationships.
Like Ida hobbling cautiously through the snow, Shaw’s novel moves slowly, carefully, as its drama plays out. Although central to the plot, the fantastical elements remain quiet as the characters go about their business – this is not a sensational tale, and owes more to ‘literary fiction’ than to fantasies set in the modern day like, say, Gaiman’s American Gods (not that American Gods isn’t literary, but I hope you know what I mean). As I said above, The Girl with Glass Feet focuses upon relationships, and particularly upon them struggling to articulate and construct themselves despite the many external forces that threaten to suppress them or cut them short.
Perhaps the most crucial factor Shaw explores is parenthood – the extent to which the actions of one’s parents can still take a hold on your life many years after the events. This is most obvious in Midas’s plotline, what with his deep-seated resentment of his late father holding him back from his own desires. But it is also an important element in Ida’s story thread, especially when family friend Carl Maulsen – who knew Ida’s late mother, and also used to work with Midas’s father – attempts to take her under his wing. Carl’s actions are fuelled by memories of Freya MacLaird (with whom he was in love), and Ida must resist being seen as merely a replacement or extension of her mother.
The unsuccessful, missed loves of the previous generation bear down upon Ida and Midas while they try to come to terms with the fact that their own budding relationship may be tragically brief. However – Shaw seems to be saying – transience does not necessarily mean that the relationship cannot be transformative and endure in a way that is (hopefully) constructive – as opposed to the repressive repercussions of their parents’ experiences.
Shaw brings all of this to light in deft and perspicacious prose, lyrical without being overburdened, and highly impressive for a debut author. The characters are complex, often odd, and sympathetic without their various sufferings being over-sentimentalised. The Girl with Glass Feet is, however, undeniably a rather bleak book, and not what I would call an easy read; its moments of whimsy are weighed down with sadness. The novel certainly will not suit those who crave action-packed plots, but for those seeking a more contemplative read it is a tender, moving exploration of love and of the simultaneous gifts and wounds offered by memory and preservation.