Strange things are happening on the remote archipelago of St Hauda's Land. Unusual winged creatures flit around icy bogland; albino animals hide in the snow-glazed woods; jellyfish glow in the ocean's depths… and Ida Maclaird is turning into glass.
The Girl With Glass Feet
We're introduced to St. Hauda's Land in the coldest season and at first glance it seems this is a place where Winter rules all. The land is icy and snowbound, the guarded people forced together by the black sea surrounding it and the mysteries contained within. The boglands are harsh and lend themselves to ghost-sightings, though whether they're real or imaginary, most are reluctant to find out.
"Would you believe there are glass bodies here, hidden in the bog water?" Henry Fuwa says to mainlander Ida Mclaird, in a brief and very odd exchange.
It's something she dismisses as one stranger's delirious ramblings until her own feet begin to turn to glass. She returns to St. Hauda's determined to find Henry and some answers. But there's much more to the monochrome land, and it's people, than first meets the eye. Even with the reluctant help of a young local photographer named Midas, Ida finds more questions than answers, and, as the glass creeps up her ankles, it's apparent time is running out.
Note: As this is a fairy tale themed blog I'll be focusing on the folk/fairy tale and mythic aspects of the novel.
Quite simply, I loved this book, not the least because it's all about transformation. It was an unexpected pleasure of magical realism interwoven with a touching and resonant love story*. The fantastical elements were so deftly handled it felt completely believable. While I was reading, the weather was cold and snow-filled and it wasn't a stretch to feel you could look out the window and catch a glimpse of the elusive creature who "turns everything she looks at pure white". Other creatures and phenomena are revealed so naturally you're drawn in to accept their reality without question, which in turn brings you to appreciate this harsh yet wondrous land. This is a story which just happens to have fantastic aspects. You don't need to like fantasy or fairy tales to enjoy this book.
The fairy tale of this novel is very 'old world' in that it's not focused on the magic, nor on the happily-ever-after but instead on the people and the individual journeys they take - some more successful than others. A parallel could be made with Cinderella, considering the 'permanent' glass slipper and the ticking clock but I feel this fairy tale deserves it's own consideration apart from that story type. If anything, "The Girl With Glass Feet" seems to have a closer relation to Snow Maiden stories or Orpheus & Eurydice. Despite those parallels and the bleakness of the land and circumstances (for more than just Ida and Midas) there's a very real sense of hope and a blooming of life, something mirrored by the lovely little moth-winged cattle that share one of the most symbolic and touching scenes in the book.
It's apparent Mr. Shaw reads and loves the old fairy tales (something that was confirmed by visiting his blog, in which he discusses some of his favorites and shares the lovely sketches he's been inspired to draw, some of which are shown in this post). "The Girl With Glass Feet" draws on European fairy tales (as well as possibly some Inuit legends) and is infused with fantastic renderings that have as much believability as they had in the pre-mechanized past when everyday tasks and rituals allowed for the reality of such creatures and happenings.
The writing itself is lovely; an impressive debut with a wonderfully unique way of using words that's a pleasure to read. Told mainly from the point of view of Midas and Ida, the point of view changes within chapters (and sometimes paragraphs) were unexpected but I felt it worked for the most part, rarely pulling me out of the story (some were, in fact, humorous and/or wonderfully refreshing). I usually find such 'head-hopping' very distracting but the fluidity of storytelling remained in general. There are many relational intricacies between the many characters, including Midas' parents (one deceased and one not), Ida's parents and more. Overall they're well handled and interwoven. If anything bothered me it was possibly a little too much backstory on some of the more minor characters, making me impatient to get back to the ticking clock on Midas and Ida. This is forgivable though as all the characters felt very real. Even the descriptions of the locations had such variety and life, the land itself seemed alive and a character in its own right, with its own story.
There are many other reviews cropping up at present so I won't go into too much more detail except to say the book is full of deliberate contrasts which play off of each other beautifully (such as the lively Ida slowly turning to glass while Midas, who has stayed safely behind the glass lens of his camera, learns to embrace life). I love the symbolism used throughout, which doesn't feel at all heavy-handed (I'll let you to discover your own connections). The heart of the land and the hearts of the people living in it are juxtaposed to great effect while always there's the sense of water all around, moving everything and everyone along in the story. Even the prose has a very fluid feel to it with the words flowing beautifully and unpredictably, taking you to places you wouldn't expect.
Illustration by Ali Shaw for his blog post on The Nixie in the Millpond
I liked that reasons weren't given for every phenomena and that some things were left unexplained. There were enough depths and textures given that you could create your own theories if you thought about it but it also felt very fairy tale-like to have things just 'be' without dissection. I found the ending touching, completely satisfying and thought it finished with just the right amount of denouement.
If this is the only book Mr. Shaw writes**, it's a great one to have written. It's already gathering honorable mentions and being placed on the long and short lists for awards. I wouldn't be surprised if it becomes a movie one day, it has that sort of feel to it, reminding me of both Gabriel Garcia Marquez's books and "Snow Falling On Cedars".
"The Girl With Glass Feet" is a magical, transformative story, full of an 'old world' fairy tale sense, contrasting wonder with bleakness, both in landscape and in circumstance. This book was such a joy to read - a true winter fairy tale that doesn't shy away from the pain and sadness of an imperfect world yet still shines with the hope of a coming sun.
5 stars - excellent. Highly recommended.
Other reviews of "The Girl With Glass Feet" by fairy tale sites:
Folk and Fairy
Supernatural Fairy Tales
Cabinet Des Feés
* This isn't a romance per say but it is very much in keeping with how romantic love is portrayed in fairy tales - that is, truly, both in pain and in joy. There is more than one love story in this book and the others neatly serve to underscore the truth of the main, developing, love story between Ida and Midas.
** Ali Shaw is currently at work on his second novel.