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The Girl With Glass Feet

Ali Shaw

(Picador; US: Jan 2011)

The Girl With Glass Feet is about a young woman named Ida who is slowly turning into glass. An awkward young man named Midas meets her and becomes infatuated. Gradually, the infatuation grows into something deeper and more profound. This deepening relationship is reflected—sometimes literally—in Ida’s continued transformation from flesh-and-blood woman to glass statue.


When a writer utilizes such a baldly fantastic conceit as the very bedrock of a story, it’s natural for the reader to wonder why. What does this impossibility represent? If the answer is: it represents nothing, then why bother with it at all? Why not do something else entirely—why not tell the story of a young woman whose feet are transforming into sand, or cloth, or a Justin Bieber action figure?


Before she can represent some philosophical idea, though, the girl with glass feet must be a character that the reader cares about regardless of her condition, and here author Ali Shaw succeeds. Ida is a dreamy young woman struggling to retain her composure even in the face of the terrifying transformation now facing her. She’s had an active life with its share of adventures and loss, and her relationships are deftly drawn and believable. This is especially true of her interactions with Midas, a shy young man who intrigues her at times but elsewhere frustrates her with his tentative advances and retreats.


Nor are Ida and Midas the only characters of note. Midas’s father, also named Midas, exerts a powerful influence over his son even years after his death. Exotic Emiliana Swallows is a loose-haired, vaguely witchy woman who has an unlikely experience that could have bearing on Ida’s current predicament. That she also has secrets in her past should come as no surprise: in this book, everybody has secrets. Then there is Henry Fuwa, local naturalist, who interests extend to the impossible, moth-sized flying cattle he lovingly tends—a herd of flying creatures tiny enough to rest comfortably in the palm of one’s hand.


The action takes place in an otherworldly chain of islands called St Hauda’s Land, whose lowering skies and stark landscape serve as another character in the novel. St Hauda’s Land carries a forbidding, foreboding air of strangeness, and the islands are presented as an archipelago where bizarre things happen. Henry Fuwa’s obsession with tiny, moth-winged cattle makes a certain kind of sense here—if it doesn’t seem exactly normal, it’s nevertheless the kind of thing that feels like it could happen.


Shaw’s language, his careful selection of adjectives and artfully ordered word choice, brings this strangeness to life on the page. “Behind Gurmton the woods began suddenly. Lost partygoers looking for the seafront sobered up in seconds when they stumbled upon the eaves of the forest at night.” It isn’t just the landscape that exudes strangeness either, as the narrator makes mention of “snooping neighbors who could detect secrets like crows detecting carrion. Almost worse than that (because you could ignore people): the way the place regurgitated unwanted details.”


Elsewhere, Shaw’s language is imagistic and powerfully visual. Eels are released into a river, “where they shimmered away like living liquids.” Elsewhere, “a black seabird dipped into the ocean like a nib dipping into an inkwell.” As winter passes, “melting snow let clean patches of slate emerge, plasmic bodies of light agleam where furred white had been for weeks.”


At its heart, despite the weirdness, this is a love story, or a story about love, or maybe about the limits of love or about the tyranny that love can hold over us. To be sure, there are many ways to interpret the symbolism, if symbolism it is: as a reflection of the vulnerability that love forces upon us, or of the fragility of our lives, or the transparency of our motivations. Eventually, though, such interpretations are moot. Ida’s glass feet are less a symbol than a symptom: she is an interesting character not because she is turning into glass but because she is Ida, a woman with a past and a family and relationships and aspirations. All the same things that make anyone else interesting, in other words.


In recent years there has been a flurry of high-profile non-realistic, or maybe neo-magical-realist, novels—The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenneggar, Life of Pi by Yann Martel, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, and The Girl Who Chased the Moon by Sarah Addison Allen are all examples of “fantastical lit” that were warmly received by readers and critics. It’s tempting to invent a theory that explains this trend: a flight from reality? A search for meaning outside our quotidian daily existence?


I think, though, that that’s missing the point. What these books all share is a strong narrative thrust, compelling characters, and lively, lyrical writing. The Girl With Glass Feet is another entry in this canon. A fine and moving book—the ending is killer—it will resonate with the reader for a long time.

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DAVID MAINE is a novelist and essayist. His books include The Preservationist (2004), Fallen (2005), The Book of Samson (2006), Monster, 1959 (2008) and An Age of Madness (2012). He has contributed to The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Esquire.com and NPR.com, among other outlets. He is a lifelong music obsessive whose interests range from rock to folk to hip-hop to international to blues. He currently lives in western Massachusetts, where he works in human services. Catch up with his blog, The Party Never Stops, at davidmaine.blogspot.com, or become his buddy on Facebook (or Twitter or Google+ or whatever you prefer) to keep up with reviews and other developments.


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