On the edge of somewhere we almost know lies the archipelago of St Hauda's Land, a scatter of islands wrapped about by their own hazy reality. Ida MacLaird has returned to them in search of an answer to a mystery. Midas Crook was born and bred on them and remains bound by their secrets and silences. Their stories make for a novel of uncertainties and strange moments of illumination, of loss and confusion and hopeless loves, of missed chances and memories soured by time.
Midas takes photographs to define and explain a world he does not understand and rather fears. He constructs himself as solitary, hiding out from his memories of his parents' painful marriage, his mother's strange hopes and his father's coldness and suicide. His outside life is confined by his photographs and by his job in a florist's shop owned by his sole friend. When Ida comes into his life, he is both fascinated and repelled, anxious and afraid. Having spent a holiday on the islands, Ida has begun to turn slowly into glass, from her feet up. She has come back to search for Henry Fuwa, a recluse whom she met briefly and who told her a tale of glass bodies in a marsh, and for a cure. She draws Midas, unwilling, into her quest.
This is not an easy book, nor is it a comfortable one, though it is rather beautiful. Shaw's world is oblique, liminal; there are no easy explanations here, and little comfort. Midas's life has been defined by his unloving father: afraid to become him, afraid to love, he struggles to connect with Ida. Ida is literally bound to the ground by the weight of her feet, hampered and hounded not by her own past but that of her mother, who was loved by another of the island's visitors, Carl Maulsen. Maulsen, in turn, once worked with Midas's father (another Midas). Fuwa, a recluse who devotes his life to the protection of a herd of diminutive moth-winged cattle, once loved Midas's mother, but has become afraid of her aging, changing. This is a landscape of the lost and the abandoned, the obsessed and the terrified, the disappointed:
Tourists would never be attracted . . . by the fishery guildhall at Gurmton, whose painted ceiling of seamen and sea creatures, all depicted with underwhelming skill in the muted colours of the ocean, was optimistically compared to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. (p. 9)
We are never more than a step away from legend, where St Hauda himself was transported to the islands by a flock of a hundred and one sparrows and a strange beast dwells in the forest, turning every creature that sees it pure white. Like Ida's body, transformation—from the mundane to the strange and back again—is everywhere. The writing is sharp and assured and often lyrical, though Shaw's palette is that of winter and undergrowth. The islands "looked like the swatted corpse of a bug-eyed insect" (p. 22); "Knotted shrubs looked so black they could have been hauled from an oil slick" (p. 161). The expatriate Fuwa sees himself as "lost or forgotten, in an airport terminal among unclaimed suitcases or misdirected airmail." As Ida charts the inexorable progress of the glass up her legs, flesh turned first white then transparent, her understanding of what is happening to her becomes more and more opaque. People miss chances, miss salvation, miss each other, Shaw seems to be saying, as his characters succumb to confusion and winter.
I don't know if I enjoyed The Girl with Glass Feet, although I admire it and I'm glad to have read it. It was not a quick read: the depths of the language and the obliqueness of the text require thought and digestion. The characters are odd, quirky, not always likable, but they are interesting and engaging and often sympathetic. I savoured the revelations of small mysteries: our glimpses of Fuwa at peace with his cattle, the underpinnings of Midas's father's suicide, the slow unrolling of the forests and bogs through which Ida must journey with her heavy, limping feet. For all their peculiarities, these are people, not caricatures, and I empathised. The cover blurb calls the book a love story, and perhaps it is, but if so, it is one of lost and missed love—of Carl for Freya MacLaird, of Fuwa for Evalina Crook, of Ida for the nervous and self-protective Midas, who hoards his fears like his namesake's gold. It is certainly a love story between a writer and his words, and that charms and attracts me. This is, have no doubt, a complex and accomplished first novel, and Shaw's voice is pure and true.
There are things that irritated me. Everyone suffers in this book, but the women suffer most while the men (or at least some of them) achieve some level of understanding and enlightenment. That's a trope I am rather tired of: it would be nice to see a move away from this kind of objectification, and I would have liked one of the women to have come to a better end. It is perhaps rather a slow book, too—there were places where I wanted to shake Midas. All resolution here is incomplete and uncertain, and there are no certain happy endings, but there are times when the characters' anxieties begin to look more like vacillation.
But it is a novel that is rich with invention and imagination and if it is rather quiet, it is a satisfying quiet, like a long walk at midnight. And Shaw is young and his writing can only become even more accomplished with time. His name is now firmly on my "to be watched" list, and were there to be an equivalent of the Arthur C. Clarke Award award for British fantasy, I would hope to see The Girl with Glass Feet on its shortlist ahead of many of the books published this year by established novelists. Ali Shaw is a welcome and talented addition to the roster of British writers of SF and fantasy, and I look forward very much to seeing what he will do next.
Kari Sperring is the author of Living with Ghosts (Daw, 2009), and is the reviews editor for Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association. As Kari Maund, she is an historian of Britain in the early middle ages and has published five books and many articles in that field. With Phil Nanson, she is co-author of The Four Musketeers: The True Story of d'Artagnan, Porthos, Aramis and Athos. She lives and works in Cambridge, England.
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