Tuesday, February 23, 2010

REVIEW: The Girl with Glass Feet, by Ali Shaw

The Girl with Glass Feet, by Ali Shaw. Published 2009 by Henry Holt. Literary Fiction.

The Girl with Glass Feet, the debut novel by British writer Ali Shaw, has a magical premise; a young girl named Ida MacLaird discovers she is slowly turning to glass. Desperate for help, she returns to remote and strange St. Hauda's Land to find Henry Fuwa, a scientist of unusual creatures and the only man who can help her. She meets Midas, a florist and amateur photographer who doesn't want to feel and holds the world, and those in it, at a distance, and they begin a chaste and timid romance as they search for a cure.

But small, foggy St. Hauda's Land is a place filled with secrets and wonders and more than just a love story, The Girl with Glass Feet is a fairy tale set among ordinary people. Shaw's style reflects this contradiction, at times lyrical and luminous and at others relentlessly plain. It's on display when, for example, Midas first discovers Ida's secret:
He reached for the tops of Ida's socks and gripped them gently together. Then he rolled them towards her ankle. She mumbled something and he froze, but left his fingers in place...
He stared.
Kept staring.
Peeled the socks off entirely.
Her toes were pure glass. Smooth, clear, shining glass. Glinting crescents of light edged each toenail and each crease between the joints of each digit. Seen through her toes, the silver spots on the bedsheet diffused into metallic vapors. The ball of her foot was glass too, but murkier, losing its transparency in a gradient until, near her ankle, it reached skin: matte and flesh toned like any other...Bones materialized faintly inside the ball of her foot, then became lily white...In the curve of her instep wisps of blood hung trapped like twirls of paint in marbles.
I love how Shaw juxtaposes Midas's very ordinary human reactions with lovely descriptions of Ida's feet. His descriptive writing is the best thing about the book and he puts his powers to good use in communicating the brutal power of the St. Hauda's Land landscape and the slow but excruciating changes in the landscape of Ida's body.

His characters aren't really as fleshed out though, and the plot moves at a glacial pace. There were times when the story lost me a little, when I felt like Shaw spent too much time on the backstories of minor characters without really developing the characters themselves, and when the minutiae of everyday life took attention away from the urgency of Ida's condition. Midas and Ida's love story felt rushed to me and not as moving as it could have been. I didn't feel the romance between them; I just had to believe it when Shaw said it was there. That to me is a serious problem in a love story, especially a tragic one.

And I would like to have seen more of Henry, a fascinating character who just wasn't given enough to do. Near the end Henry and Midas have a heart-to-heart and Shaw tells us "there was an honesty between them where suspicion had marked some of their previous meetings." I would prefer to see some of that honesty rather than just be told about it; Shaw gives this scene a page and a half with six lines of dialog between them. I will say though, that the ending is heart-rending and sweet, even if it took some patience to get there. I wish I had liked The Girl with Glass Feet more; I really wanted to like it, and there are times when Shaw creates something special and truly original. But the magic turned out to be a little too elusive to enchant this hopeless romantic.


FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.