Monday, June 10, 2013

The Girl with Glass Feet (Ali Shaw)

Summer in the Philippines can be unforgiving. Eventually I start wishing for sandy beaches or colder climates, so I didn't hesitate to pick up three books that had winter settings sometime last March. Call it wishful thinking. One of those books was Ali Shaw's The Girl with Glass Feet.

The Girl with Glass Feet's St Hauda's Land delivers just what I had expected: a northern setting of ice and bog, harshly cold but also strangely magical. Deep within this icy archipelago (I am never sure if it's meant to be a country in itself) are magical things: a pale glow in the woods, albino creatures, tiny winged animals. It's also the setting of a love story told in multiple perspectives, mostly through the eyes of Midas Crook, a reclusive photographer, and Ida Maclaird, a tourist who never left. Not that she could: St Hauda's Land is slowly transforming Ida. An icy splinter has begun to spread and turn her feet into glass.

There's a deep sense of melancholy in the narrative. Mr Shaw's words fall heavy, as you would imagine Ida's feet to be within her thick boots. He also has a gift for description: 'In the curve of her instep wisps of blood hung trapped like twirls of paint in marbles (p62).' or 'He thought of Evaline, and white dragonflies skimming by a river, and husks of the larvae bodies they had left behind in the reeds and green stalks, and the way back then he'd thought love had been hatching (p 123).' Instead of marching into the fairly straightforward and unforgiving fate awaiting Ida, the language uses flashbacks and details to make the plot richer. In a way, this also hides some of the book's weaknesses. Readers never fully understand why this is happening to her. I would have been fine just chalking it up to the general logic of magical realism, but given that the source of her malady was already tackled, I thought that eventually we would get some explanation as to why it even started in the first place. Unfortunately, I didn't get that. Or if it had been explained, I must have missed the significance of a few lines within the flowery prose.

The characters' isolation is self-imposed. It's as if the remoteness of St Hauda's Land has pushed them away from most kinds of physical and emotional attachments. Each one is flawed and hungry and weighed down. Even Ida, whose demeanor and perspective has often been positive and open, has moments that lead her to shun contact and dependence. When she meets Midas, the two of them recognize the similarities in their characters, despite their obvious contrasts.

But what really kept me reading was the transformation of Midas and Ida as people. Their relationship was both sudden/glacial, realistic/surreal. Strange. There were so many things that I loved about The Girl with Glass Feet but I don't think I'm ready to reread it any time soon. There is already some bitterness, sharp like an icy crystal splinter, working its way into me.


Peter S. said...

Hello! I remember reading this book a few years ago, when it was featured as one of the nominees for the "Not a Booker" award over at the Guardian.

It's like a fable, no? I'm glad to have met a fellow blogger who enjoyed it as much as I did.

dementedchris said...


It is! I like stories like these. I forgot to mention that I liked Henry Fuwa though his story contributed to the uneven moments in the book. Ah, but the ending!

Another on my list is Eowyn Ivey's The Snow Child. Halfway there!