Thoughtful, dreamlike, meandering–these were my expectations of Ali Shaw’s debut novel, The Girl with Glass Feet. For the first chapter or so, the novel held up. Lines like “It was a darkening afternoon whose final shafts of light passed between trees, swung across the earth like searchlights,” drew me into St. Hauda’s Land, setting up yet more expectations. Then it all fell flat…
Ida Maclaird is turning to glass. Afraid of people, water, and his dead father, Midas Crook may as well be made of glass. In true fairy tale fashion, the two meet in a wood tinged with darkness, awkwardly blundering past social niceties and into love. Told in alternating points of view, The Girl with Glass Feet flits between Ida and Midas, weaving their stories in and around others: Midas’ father, a detached academic who commits suicide; Carl Maulsen, a Maclaird family friend still in love with Ida’s dead mother; Henry Fuwa, a solitary biologist caring for moth-winged bulls, hunting for other fairy tale creatures, once in love with Midas’ mother; and Emiliana Stallows, a natural therapist once in love with Carl.
While not based on any specific fairy tale, Shaw’s story explores elements common to many transformation tales, particularly Jorinda and Joringel. Like Jorinda, Ida is lured into a trap, (though hers is, in some part, of her own making), lingering, pitying, and readying herself for what lies ahead. Like Joringel, Midas struggles through woods until he comes upon a strange village, battles a witch, and ultimately comes to free his love. Stronger, more aggressive than Jorinda, Ida meets Midas halfway, drawing him into the castle, coaching him through his rescue.
Ida could almost as easily have been dying of cancer. But cancer is not as clean, as beautiful, and yet Ida’s glass is not beautiful. Shaw’s exploration of the dichotomy between the exquisiteness of her feet and the brutality of their effect is haunting, Ida’s grief for her lost self, believable. Her later acceptance of her fate and search for grace border on maudlin, though this is may be an entirely plausible response.
Where Ida is engrossing, Midas is not. His retreat into photography (observing rather than living) is a tired metaphor, and his interactions with other characters are slow and stilted, almost autistic in nature. His relationship with his employer and best friend, Gustav, is saccharine at best; Gustav’s treatment of Midas’ fear of touch is more deus ex machina than convincing character growth.
Shaw is a gifted writer. Atmosphere and character are painted with broad strokes then filled in with minute, pin-prick detail. But the story suffers from early chapter syndrome: the first few chapters are focused (insofar as a thoughtful, dreamlike, meandering story can be) and insightful, the descriptions of St. Hauda’s Land and moth-winged bulls enchanting. Yet somewhere after the fifth chapter, Shaw loses his way, plunging the reader into magic realism at its worst, giving us enough detail to pique curiosity, but not enough to enthrall. Moth-winged bulls and creeping glass soon fall into footnote territory, no more than a reminder that Midas and Ida’s love is transient, ethereal, and doomed. The pacing slows, the time between the reader’s discovery of Ida’s affliction and Midas’ discovery of it too great.“Thats” run rampant as an angry moth-winged bull; light “dazzles” off a surface; characters “oblige” rather than speak. In a less thoughtful, faster-paced work such flaws would be less noticeable, less irritating. Shaw’s story, however, hinges on the unhurried, contemplative bent of Midas, the forced slowing of Ida. As the story buillds–or rather crashes into–momentum, the point of view switches become quicker, the chapters shorter, a failed attempt at creating tension where there is none as Ida’s fate is clear within the first few chapters of the book. Midas and Ida each give in to violent actions as the Shaw attempts to speed the romantic process; toward the end, clunky sentences become the norm, the author’s early precision giving way to a rushed feeling that doesn’t agree with the story.
Written in third person limited, Shaw’s story is–somewhat fittingly–removed from its players. Shaw’s characters are well-described, their voices clear and distinct. Were this a two person narrative, Shaw’s prose would be spot on. As a multi-person story, though, the clear, distinct voices war for attention, their subplots shouting for deeper treatment. Carl Maulsen’s obsession with Ida’s mother and Henry Fuwa’s weak struggles to Do The Right Thing are so scarcely dealt with that they fail to give context. Emiliana Stallows’ short chapter serves no purpose save putting Midas’ friend Gustav in the right place at the right time in another deus ex machina moment. And yet there are hints of something deeper, some thought-provoking turning point in Carl’s, Henry’s, even Emiliana’s chapters that beg to be explored.
Though I’m normally hesitant to pigeonhole books, The Girl with Glass Feet is definitely a niche story. Shaw’s characters, are alternately satisfying (Gustav’s daughter, Denver, who deserves a story of her own) and frustrating (Henry Fuwa, and Midas’ mother, Evaline). Fairy tale lovers, philosophers, and thoughtful readers may enjoy its wandering nature; readers in search of another Great and Terrible Beauty will be disappointed.