I came upon Ali Shaw’s first novel The Girl with Glass Feet quite by chance, as one of the list of nominations for the British Fantasy Award in 2010. Reading Shaw's debut excited me no end. It was well characterized, delicately poetic, rich with original imagery. I felt I'd stumbled upon a true future classic of the fantastic. It astounded me that someone so young—Shaw was just 26 when Girl was published—could produce a debut so strong, assured and satisfyingly competent as literature. I couldn't wait to see what he came up with next.
In Shaw's follow-up, The Man Who Rained, Elsa Beletti is doubly bereaved. Her father has recently died, and she has just broken up with her boyfriend, Peter. Wanting to escape her troubles and sort out her future, she leaves her job as a magazine features editor in New York and sets out for Thunderstown, a place she once saw from a plane "en route to what would prove to be a crappy holiday" and has dreamed of visiting ever since.
Viewed from the black sky, the glowing dots of Thunderstown's lights formed the same pattern as a hurricane viewed from space, a network of interlocked spirals glimmering through the dark. And at the heart of the town an unlit blot—an ominous void like the eye of a hurricane. Peter had despised her because on the first few days of their holiday she'd wanted to do nothing but research the route of their flight, until at last she came upon the town’s name and repeated it over and over to herself like the password to a magic cave. (p. 11)
She is met at the airport by Kenneth Olivier, the keeper of the local bed and breakfast. Kenneth is a peaceable soul who like Elsa seems attuned to the isolation that Thunderstown offers, but it turns out that he too has tragedy in his past: his son Michael went for a walk in the mountains and never came back. On her arrival in Thunderstown, Elsa takes a menial job at the local council offices and uses her free time to explore the town and its surrounding wilderness. Many of the locals appear friendly and welcoming but others—town elders and general gossips Abe Cosser and Sidney Moses in particular—are hostile towards her as an incomer and suspicious of her motives in coming to Thunderstown in the first place.
Her first days in her mountain refuge seem idyllic, but as Elsa comes to know more about Thunderstown and its people she learns that all is not entirely as it seems. A mysterious hermit, Daniel Fossiter, stalks the mountains culling goats and wild dogs in an attempt to appease the spirits of this unquiet place. Daniel was once the lover of a local woman, Betty Munro, who was said to have formed a "devil's bargain" with the mountain in exchange for conceiving a child. As well as being the last in the line of hereditary cullers, Daniel also acts as guardian to Betty's son Finn, a strange young man who lives by himself in a stone bothy in the mountains and is whispered by the locals to be the true incarnation of "Old Man Thunder," a dangerous creature that is part man, part weather.
When Elsa first comes upon Finn she is struck with bewilderment and wonder. But as she gets to know him better she finds herself overcome with love for this stranger, who seems to share her passion for weather and her feelings of alienation from the quotidian worlds of men and their stifling cities. Elsa and Finn form a plan to go away together, to "have an adventure . . . to pick a horizon and head off for it" (p. 192), but the hostile locals have other ideas. They fear Finn, and want him destroyed.
The greatest novels of the fantastic work by subverting our expectations, both of magic and of reality. Those that are less successful tend to reduce fantasy to a series of what we call tropes, in other words an iconography that has become so familiar that it is no longer wonderful or startling but merely an anodyne recapitulation of comfortable archetypes. The Girl with Glass Feet was described by many reviewers as an adult fairy tale and both it and The Man Who Rained have at their core a fascination with old stories, tales that stem from our own human superstitions and native interpretation of the world. When broken down into their significant elements, both Girl and Man share a simple mythic structure: a troubled young person in pursuit of a father-figure encounters a manifestation of the fantastic and is forever changed by it. In their original incarnations, stories like these were moral fables; in the world of contemporary fantasy, they have become the templates for engrossing, vital novels of character in which magic is turned to metaphor and elements of the fantastic are used to both illuminate and undermine aspects of everyday reality.
Unfortunately, The Man Who Rained turns out to be something of a pale imitation of The Girl With Glass Feet. Much of the problem for me lies in the characterization. Midas Crook, the reluctant hero of Girl and another young person with a lost father, had defined ambitions, and his passion for photography formed a clear strand of the narrative. His father's almost Casaubon-like obsession with scholarship was another strong strand. In other words, these characters had something to do. They had interests that defined them and made them interesting in their turn. Their existence in a semi-magical realm was of secondary importance to their human predicament, and as readers we would have been interested in their stories even without the magic to entertain us. In The Man Who Rained, Elsa's aims and ambitions are much less certain. We understand that she enjoyed her job as a features editor; in the light of this, her willingness to jettison her old life mainly because she is "freaked out" by an unexpected marriage proposal feels unconvincing. Our second protagonist, Finn Munro, has little to occupy himself other than his anxiety over his peculiar heritage. The Mills & Boon-like desire of these characters simply to head off into the sunset gives them nothing to aspire to beyond the vapid conclusion to most fairy tales: the traditional happy ending. There is a keen edge of danger in Girl. The conflict between Midas and his father feels bitter and deadlocked, and the mysterious disease afflicting Midas's new love Ida turns out to be incurable and ultimately fatal. In Man, Elsa's anger with her father—a small-time embezzler who abandons his family—is a mere token beside her mythically irredeemable love for him, and Finn is miraculously able to reverse his supernatural transformation and run joyously into the arms of his human lover. All's well that ends well, but the novel feels lacking in psychological complexity as a result.
I also felt the sense of place was ill-defined. Although Shaw clearly revels in his descriptions of the natural world, the landscape of the novel feels like an uncomfortable compromise between the recognizably real and the true fantastic. The way Elsa initially discovers Thunderstown makes us presume that it is part of "our" Earth, yet we never discover what country it is in, or on which continent it lies. The town seems to bear some of the characteristics of a central European mountain community, and when Elsa first explores her new environment her chief delight lies in how different it seems from the arid landscape of her native Oklahoma:
She felt at once enclosed, as if in a maze, and yet exposed, as if on the plains of her childhood. A narrow street would course along between the tall walls of houses, around a tight bend, narrow and narrow further, then terminate in a dead end. Just when she'd begin to think she might wander this labyrinth forever, a sharp turn or a run of steep steps would eject her, and she would be released into a brilliantly lit courtyard, wildflowers bursting up between its flagstones. But wherever she found herself, one of the four mountains would always preside. (p. 20)
The locals' lack of knowledge of American place names hints at somewhere isolated and far-flung—yet everyone in Thunderstown speaks English, and Elsa appears to feel no particular culture shock at landing up there, even when she encounters sunbeams that turn into canaries, and sees a wild dog slaughtered to propitiate the weather gods. New York also remains curiously flat on the page. Why Shaw chose to cast Elsa as a New Yorker is not clear, but we gain no real sense of the city's thrust and hubbub, and correspondingly no sense of Elsa's urge to escape it beyond that which we are routinely told. Both Fact and Faerie remain insufficiently defined, and consequently neither feels completely real. Even the weather in Thunderstown is surprisingly undramatic and in spite of the locals' warnings it remains unthreatening. We are repeatedly told about a long-ago flood which devastated the town and inundated the local mines, causing many casualties. More detail here—a testimony from a survivor perhaps—would have been most welcome. Disappointingly, when the thunder finally comes to Thunderstown we find ourselves removed to the sunlit confines of the local nunnery, famously unaffected by even the most violent weathers. Consequently the storm supposedly raging in the valley below has all the immediacy of a hurricane witnessed at one remove via CNN.
Similarly I could not help feeling that the social world of the novel often seems rather muddled. On the one hand the population remain in thrall to inbred superstitions running back generations, yet the people of Thunderstown go devoutly to church, sing in the choir, pray for good weather and listen to Test Match Special on the radio. There are times when The Man Who Rained, with its high Anglican church services and jolly nuns smelling of pudding wine, has all the pagan undertones of a vicars' tea party in Godalming. Shaw does make some attempt to use these representations of small town Christianity as part of a deeper strand examining the nature of religious faith, as we see here when Elsa sits in church remembering her father:
Now, thinking back on it, she wondered why her dad had never come to church with them on Sundays? If he'd done that it could have been a pact: storms on a Saturday and services the day after . . . The church of the sky was something she'd so often dreamed of while the boo-ha of the Sunday service carried on around her. There seemed to her infinitely more God to be found by staring up at the never-ending universe than by looking glumly around a building of bricks and stone. (p. 183)
Unfortunately the questions raised are left largely unexamined and these odd echoes of a complacent middle England left me confused and not a little uncomfortable.
The Magical Realists of South America and Eastern Europe have been happily employing mythic structure as a part of literary expression for decades, and the decision to market Shaw's novels as mainstream fiction rather than as works of genre fantasy has perhaps been an attempt on the part of his publishers to ally him with that tradition. In the case of The Girl with Glass Feet, it could be argued that this approach has been soundly justified. In the case of The Man Who Rained I feel less certain. The naive characterization and inadequate realization of place will no doubt cause some critics to dismiss the book as escapist fantasy, while the unthreatening blandness of its ambience is unlikely to be wholly satisfying for readers who know the genre and love it for its ability to subvert, surprise and debunk existing stereotypes.
There is no doubt that Ali Shaw possesses remarkable talents as a writer. His first novel was proof of that, and The Man Who Rained contains many passages of striking imagination and beauty. More's the pity then that this second novel seems constantly to strain towards something the first book grasped effortlessly. The Man Who Rained, though full of quaint charm, feels a little rushed, falling short of what it so easily might have been. I can only express the hope that when his third novel is published we will once again see Shaw employing his considerable abilities to express himself with the complexity and depth he has already proved himself capable of attaining.
Nina Allan’s stories have appeared regularly in the magazines Black Static and Interzone, and have featured in the anthologies Catastrophia, House of Fear, Best Horror of the Year #2, and Year's Best SF #28. A first collection of her short fiction, A Thread of Truth, was published by Eibonvale Press in 2007, followed by the story cycle The Silver Wind in 2011. Twice shortlisted for the BFS and BSFA Award, Nina's next book, Stardust, will be available from PS Publishing in autumn 2012. Her website is at www.ninaallan.co.uk. She lives and works in Hastings, East Sussex.