Fiction – paperback; Atlantic Books; 295 pages; 2009.
Ali Shaw’s debut novel The Girl With Glass Feet is set on a fictional wind-swept island, St Hauda, where strange and unusual events take place. And there is no more strange and unusual event than having your feet turn into glass, which is what happens to the book’s central character, Ida MacLaird, who returns to the island in search of a cure.
Here she meets Midas Crook, a painfully shy young man, who distances himself from the rest of the world by observing it through the lens of a camera. Midas is emotionally damaged through no fault of his own: his parent’s had a troubled marriage, which ended in his father’s suicide, while his eccentric mother turned into a recluse.
The two develop a close friendship, which slowly morphs into love. Midas is anxious to help Ida find a solution to her fragile feet, but with the glass slowly taking over her body, it becomes a race against time. Will a cure be found? Or will Ida succumb to this unexplainable phenomenon?
There’s no doubt that The Girl With Glass Feet is a highly imaginative work of fiction and that Shaw is an ambitious writer. But I’m not sure the book succeeds other than depicting a beautifully described world in which enchanting, occasionally odd, things occur. For a start, the text is so oblique, it’s hard to get a handle on events: for much of this novel I felt I was standing on the sidelines watching as events unfolded rather than becoming immersed in the action. And there’s such a wide cast of characters, most of them cold, aloof and weak-willed, that it’s hard to keep track of them all and their relationship to the central pair of Midas and Ida.
I know that some people have struggled with the magic realism at the core of this novel — there are moth-winged cattle that flutter about, for instance — but I thought that added to the fairytale element of the story, and demonstrated very clearly that anything was possible on the island and that a cure for Ida’s glass feet, no matter how outlandish, may be possible.
As much as I did not fall in love with the story, I did appreciate many of the issues raised by it, not least the ways in which we deal with terminal illness and whether it is better to live your remaining life well or to chase a cure that may not exist. I think it’s fair to say that The Girl With Glass Feet may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m glad I read this book and will be very interested to see what Shaw comes up with next.