I usually try to write at (greater) length on a Friday, but I’m not sure my equivocal thoughts about Ali Shaw’s debut novel, The Girl With Glass Feet, quite support that. Allow me, then, the sin of appropriating the views of others as a frame. Plenty of reviewers have tackled this quirky, bleak little fantasy, not least Robin Romm in The New York Times: “The hybrid form of the book — fairy tale, myth, psychological realism and fantasy — impresses. But Shaw’s most delightful offerings are the vivid details he provides to make the magical real.” Certainly, one of the book’s great strengths is the telling detail, memorably expressed: “A black seabird dipped into the ocean like a nib dipping into an inkwell.” [pg. 181]
Shaw is very good at landscape and place in this way. The over-riding impressions of the novel derive from the grey, bleak mulchiness of St Hauda’s Land, the fictional northern islands on which his story is set.
From an aeroplane the three main islands of the St Hauda’s Land archipelago looked like the swatted corpose of a blob-eyed insect. The thorax was Gurm Island, all marshland and wooded hills. The next was a natural aqueduct with weathered arches through which the sea flushed, leading to the eye. That was the towering but drowsy hill of Lomdendol Tor on Lomdendol Island, which, local supposition had it, first squirted St Hauda’s Land into being. The legs were six spurs of rock extending from the south west coast of Gurm Island, trapping the sea in sandy coves between them. [pg. 22]
It goes on, but that gives the flavour: this sort of description is Shaw’s principal talent, and it is a significant source of pleasure, and the main source of character, throughout the novel. “I think places take hold of us and we become mere parts of the landscape, taking on its quirks and follies,” one character explains. [pg. 267] This trick is expertly done. And yet I find it hard to echo Romm’s full-throated endorsement of the novel as a whole. This despite the fact that, on the book’s back cover, Patrick Ness – a reviewer whom I was only a few days ago citing as a trusted source – assures me that “Ali Shaw has written a rare orchid of a book.” I find myself, in fact, closer to the position of that esteemed literary organ, the Metro: “Ali Shaw’s debut novel is a bravura conceit but it’s virtually weightless in execution, striving for a mythic depth it never achieves.” Strangely, ‘virtually weightless in execution’ is treated as a positive comment by the book’s blurb writers, and a part of that two star review appears on its cover. Perhaps there’s hope for Ness yet.
So why this equivocation, despite Shaw’s obvious talent? Liviu at Fantasy Book Critic, another reviewer more positive about book than I can be, puts it like this: the book’s “interesting cast of characters is not fully developed outside the main heroes.” I’d go further than that, and say that even Ida, the girl with the feet of glass, is under-developed; that, essentially, the book whose title she inspires is the story of the St Hauda’s Land native who falls for her, the socially awkward Midas Crook. The problem, though, is that – either deliberately or otherwise – Shaw’s prose matches in its scope a character who admits to himself that he is “plainly incapable of social interaction.” [pg. 220] All the character relationships are consequently written in the same brittle, spare way. I am happy to suppose that, in a book about the fragility and entropy of human relationships, this is a carefully selected, and ruthlessly executed, strategy. But it’s hard not only to care about, but to get to know, characters who are all quite so constipated.
“Quite, quite. I couldn’t agree with you more.”
“Yet you still don’t want him in your house. The two of you fell out, he said.”
“He hasn’t told you why?”
“Did he … tell you anything at all?”
“Only that he’d found you. He said the two of you talked about his mother. He said you knew her once.”
“I … That is, I … ” He scratched his beard. “Did he tell you what I showed him in the bog?”
“No. What did you show him?” [pg. 166]
This exchange was taken at random – its style and content characterises most of the conversations which take place in the book. Shaw has moments of human observation as acute as those he reserves for the landscape (“He had wanted to kiss her but when the moment arose his head had been yanked away as if nerves were a bridle.” [pg. 197]), but they are too few and far between. The unfortunate consequence of this strain is that his female characters recede into the distance, whilst only the male characters who are his real protagonists come into Shaw’s overly harsh and excluding focus.
Even Ida seems almost to exist merely to precipitate the plot. Her character is largely flat and expressed in terms of clear and straight-forward desires: to be cured of her condition, or for “a warm body at her side and some recognition that she was alive.” [pg. 199] Naturally, it is Midas who is the focus of this unambiguous desire. More problematically, it is only he and his other males – his deceased father, or the conflicted Carl – who are asked the complicating questions. Kari Sperring at Strange Horizons has rolled out this issue rather well: “I don’t know if I enjoyed The Girl with Glass Feet, although I admire it and I’m glad to have read it. […] Everyone suffers in this book, but the women suffer most while the men (or at least some of them) achieve some level of understanding and enlightenment.” If the book is against this objectification, it is so only obliquely.
Over at Torque Control, Niall is positive about the book, although you detect something of a wish on his part that he didn’t have to be. He’s right that The Girl With Glass Feet is a challenging read, but he’s also right to feel a little uncomfortable about it: even if it is doing what it does deliberately, I’m not sure that is a defence of either its problematic execution or its consequently dubious gender politics. Even if both are a function of its sceptical vision of people, and that vision is certainly a compelling one worthy of exploration, Shaw’s execution speaks of a lack of balance: he allows his story no countervailing view, no opposite movement, and this makes it less rich than it might have been. To return to Romm, however, he on the other hand seems spot on in his conclusion: “The end of the book, saturated with color and emotion, is risky and brave like the message it imparts. Only a heart of glass would be unmoved.”
The ending, despite all the awkwardness that has gone before it, is indeed a devastatingly well executed bit of writing. Shaw is, on the strength of that last-minute save alone, one to watch. But perhaps he needs to allow his at times quite beautiful prose a little more room to breathe.