Monday, February 01, 2010

Narrative, flow don't quite work hand-in-hand in 'Glass Feet'

The setting for Ali Shaw’s The Girl With Glass Feet (Henry Holt, $24) is the fictional northern archipelago of St. Hauda’s Land, a mysterious place of bogs and swamps where people lead lives of quiet desperation. Into this desolate landscape steps Ida Maclaird, who is making a second trip to the island to find the answer to a question almost baffling in its simplicity: Why is she slowly turning to glass?

Midas Crook is a young photographer who uses his camera to negotiate the distance between him and the world around him. Scarred by his father’s suicide and his mother’s subsequent mental collapse, Midas cannot bring himself to escape the strange, insidious hold that the island has on him.

Inevitably, this being a love story, they meet and Ida’s cheery disposition (in spite of her condition) meets its match in Midas’ gravitas. Midas takes random snaps of Ida, and it is one such image that captures the truth of her feet: they are not flesh, but glass. Afraid and unwilling to get involved at first, Midas realizes he cannot bring himself to run away.

So far, so good. And Shaw shows immense promise with his deft use of language, which sings in a book that is at its heart filled with sadness. The soft light on the island plays coyly with the thick vegetation, casting glorious shadows and producing a riot of images all ably captured by Midas’ camera and Shaw’s prose.

Yet, there is just too much desperation here, too many missed chances. Henry Fuwa, a recluse who knows the secret behind Ida’s condition, loved Midas’ mother once upon a time, but their love was not to be. Ida’s caretaker on the island, Carl Maulsen, loved Ida’s mother once, but that was not to be either. And Carl and Midas’ father (also Midas), both scientists, worked together before the latter’s suicide. You see, the book is literally wallowing in pessimism.

Against this grim backdrop, the only hope is the budding affair between Ida and Midas as they go about unraveling the mystery that has its roots in the island’s strange habitat. But even this is not allowed its space, and often one gets the sense that their love is being stifled more than is called for by the merits of the case.

But Shaw has a real feel for language and his prose shines, such as when Henry recounts the night he dug out Midas Sr.’s body and the startling revelation he chanced upon. Or when the book describes the slow transformation that Ida is undergoing from her feet up, as her flesh, then the underlying soft tissue, and then the bone, turn transparent.

A magical fable, The Girl With Glass Feet showcases Shaw’s considerable talent while also pointing to this being only a debut novel and therefore prone to flaws in narrative consistency and flow. It is this reviewer’s fervent wish that the author continue along his chosen path and grow leaps and bounds with his subsequent works.

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This review appeared in Chicago Sun-Times.

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