- The Washington Times - Friday, March 26, 2010

THE GIRL WITH GLASS FEET

By Ali Shaw

Henry Holt and Co.

$24, 287 pages

REVIEWED BY CORINNA LOTHAR

A fairy tale; a fable; an allegory; a fantasy. Ali Shaw’s first novel, “The Girl With Glass Feet,” is a combination of all that. It’s the story of a pretty young woman who is slowly - and then rapidly - turning into glass, beginning with what feels like a pebble in her shoe, which turns out to be an embedded crystal in her foot.

Feet play a significant part in classic fairy tales. Hans Christian Andersen’s little mermaid surrenders her fishtail in exchange for legs and feet, and the price she pays for each step is piercing pain. The Grimm Brothers’ 12 princesses secretly dance each night away until their shoes are worn out and their feet exhausted. Charles Perrault’s Cinderella must fit her foot into a glass slipper to win her prince.

Ice, like glass, plays a role in fairy tales. In Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” a sliver from the troll’s mirror turns a boy’s heart to ice that melts only with human tears.

Ali Shaw’s girl with glass feet, Ida McLaird, has returned to the imaginary archipelago where the tale is set, St. Hauda’s Land, 30 miles off an unidentified mainland, where she had spent a summer vacation The locale feels very British, despite the colorful, Scandinavian-sounding names Mr. Shaw has given to the places and people on the islands: Lomdendol Tor, Ettinsford, Gurmton, Glamsgallow.

St. Hauda’s Land, where “the sea gnawed at the coastline, remolding it with every year,” is not your ordinary island kingdom. There is a “taste on the air. A mannerism the birds have. A peculiar snowfall, making almost mathematical patterns. A white animal that’s not an albino,” an animal “who could turn a thing white with one look from its eyes.” The sea is filled with jellyfish that “excrete light when they die.”

There are minuscule flying cattle with “butterfly wings, like flakes of patterned wax. Under the wings [they have] a hairy body with tiny horns … an ox’s head, no bigger than [Ida‘s] thumbnail, with a pink muzzle.”

In the past, Ida “had waded in the Ganges, felt downy snow fill her mouth in the Alps, breathed deep to get the last of the oxygen from the high altitude of mountains. Swum.” But now, as her body turns into glass, she’s “shut down, paralyzed, physical avenues cordoned off.”

On her summer holiday before she started turning into glass, Ida met a mysterious half-Japanese quasi hermit, Henry Fuwa, who had told her about “a glass graveyard” where Henry had “found glass hands … and a glass shape like a model of a glacier that turned out to be the hind leg of a fox or a dog.” She wants to find Fuwa to seek his help.

But now it is winter, with snow, frost and fog settling on the towns, cottages, meres and bogs. “Heavy snow, and rain all through the preceding autumn, had flooded the low-lying land where the mere became the fringe of the woods. Here the trees rose from the water like coils of sea monsters, covered in the same scaly leaves that floated on the flood’s surface and speckled the sheets of frozen mud that held hostage bulrushes. The ice lacquered tree stumps and half rinds of bark at verticals.”

Ida moves around with difficulty in the heavy socks and boots covering her glass feet. She makes friends with an islander, young Midas Crook, who is intrigued by her ailment and fascinated by Ida’s “titanium gray eyes.” Like his father, who was unable to express any emotion but anger and committed suicide when he discovered that his heart was turning to glass, Midas shudders at any human touch. His emotional life is expressed in photographs.

It is the relationship between Midas and Ida that centers the story. Like the boy in “The Snow Queen,” it was not until Ida melts his frozen heart that he begins to feel physically and emotionally, and eventually is able to leave the islands for a larger life. But as summer has turned to winter, so too have roles reversed. As Midas opens his heart and body, Ida retreats into her world of glass, for there is no one who can help her.

The novel is filled with mysterious connections: Midas’ father worked with the man in whose cottage Ida is staying, and now transfers his unrequited love for Ida’s mother onto Ida; Henry Fuwa’s only love in life was Midas’ mother; Midas’ mother inexplicably became an aged recluse long before her years required it

Ali Shaw has a gift for storytelling and an obvious love of language. His descriptions are poetic and original, but he overdoes analogies, metaphors and similes. Too many sentences like these run quickly over the top:

“His gullet rippled as he willed the guilt back inside,” and “Beeches stood aghast in pools of shed leaves,” or “Dark blood wriggled down her shins like misplaced stigmata” are over the top. Similes become ubiquitous; in two paragraphs on one page, there are three: “The air was filled with a million flakes, sinking slowly like ocean sediment”; “A bird with broad wings coasted on air currents above like a stingray”; and “Snowflakes stuck to his windscreen and shriveled there like dying starfish.” Beautiful images all, but sometimes in literature, as in life, less is more.

The tone of the story has the quality of a fairy tale or fable, so it comes as a surprise when Midas orders an “Americano” in the local cafe, or Ida uses four-letter words to express her dismay or annoyance.

“The Girl With Glass Feet” is a work of great imagination and talent. Mr. Shaw never tells us what causes the glassification, but that leaves the reader open to decide whether the tale is merely a modern fairy tale, or whether turning into glass is in itself a metaphor for a larger, human condition that creates change bringing moments of pain and pleasure.

Corinna Lothar is a writer and critic in Washington.

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