A Dickensian fairy-tale

By Buzzy Jackson
Globe Correspondent / January 10, 2010

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Have you heard of glass delusion? It’s a mistaken belief that all or part of one’s body has turned to glass. King Charles VI of France suffered from it. Cervantes and Descartes wrote about it. For unknown reasons, the malady faded away around the end of the 17th century. In a newborn millennium with more than enough fresh forms of delusion, we can be thankful for that, but the charm of Ali Shaw’s surreal first novel might just infect a new generation with the idea.

Glass feet are not merely a metaphor in this book, though they are that, too. Ida Maclaird, an otherwise normal young woman from the mainland (never named but suspiciously English), feels a twinge in her toe one day while jogging. “The sun blinked off a speck on her big toe’s underside, picked out an orange twinkle in her flushed skin . . . she saw what looked like an imbedded crystal. A thin layer of skin had grown over it.” Within a month Ida’s feet turn to glass, and the rest of her body looks likely to follow.

Baffled and terrified, Ida remembers the single person she’s heard mention such a condition: Henry Fuwa, a stranger she met on holiday in St. Hauda’s Land.

Ida returns to St. Hauda’s Land, a strange, cold archipelago Shaw has invented and invested with so much loving detail that one can almost taste the tang of the (presumably) North Sea air, in the hope of finding both Henry and perhaps even a cure. “ ‘Would you believe,’ he had said (and back then she had not), ‘there are glass bodies here, hidden in the bog water?’ ” It’s not much to go on, but it’s the only clue she’s got.

“The Girl With Glass Feet’’ is a love story, not just about two people falling in love, but also about love itself: its power, its limits, and its consequences. Our unlikely hero and Ida’s is Midas Crook, a young man made old by emotional pain. After a chance meeting in the forest, Ida enlists Midas as a sort of double agent, using his knowledge of the locals and the landscape to help her find the mystery man she’d met on her earlier trip to St. Hauda’s Land: Henry Fuwa, a hermitic, jellyfish expert successfully raising a “flock” of tiny moth-winged bulls.

Ida and Midas’s journey threads itself through the tiny, depressed former whaling towns “plunging to desertion” as well as through the interwoven relationships therein. “The Girl With Glass Feet’’ is a classic questing tale: two young lovers searching for a holy grail. Time is not on their side.

It’s hard to say whether this Midas’s touch turns everything to gold, since he avoids human contact, preferring to place his camera between himself and the rest of the world. He has only one and a half friends: his pal and protector, Gustav, and Gustav’s young daughter, Denver. Denver’s mother is, naturally, dead. Most of the women in this novel’s world are either dead or dying. The men left behind are only half alive, trapped in self-loathing and emotional frigidity. It might sound depressing but it’s not - the novel is too full of magical surprises. This is a sort of mystery novel, after all: Ida is looking for a cure for her creeping crystallization; Midas is looking for a reason to live.

There’s something very Pip-and-Estella about the relationship between Midas and Ida, though the expectations of these two young lovers are much more tender and far from great. With his neuroses, self-loathing, and shyness, Midas is also reminiscent of another improbable romantic lead: Quoyle of E. Annie Proulx’s “The Shipping News.’’ Like Quoyle, Midas’s character acts as a passive fulcrum around which the increasingly dreamlike characters and plot developments of the novel spin.

Midas Crook. Glamsgallow. Gurmton. The names of places and people are positively Dickensian. There are, in fact, Victorian touches everywhere. And although Shaw’s novel is set in the present, everything’s turned askew, resulting in a world that is at once banal - the car won’t start; the coffee’s getting cold - and fantastical - glass feet; glass hearts. Shaw makes the crucial decision to leave the human emotions and relationships in the realm of the believable, while embedding them in terrain that is ever so slightly surreal. Somehow it’s never implausible.

Shaw is at his best when describing the fantastical world he’s created. His language manages to be poetic and economical, choosing one unexpected word to convey a scene and a feeling. Here, “blooms of fungi” on a tree are “cork roses,” and the sea is “as dark as vinyl.” Animal, vegetable, and mineral are perpetually clashing in this book: glass against flesh, rock against blood. Here, when a shadow falls across Midas’s car, it’s “like black liquid. He expected it would gush out if it opened the door.” As befits life on an island, water is a constant presence. When confronted with his intense feelings for Ida, Midas “wanted to turn into a wave so he could spill away.”

While the challenges facing Ida and Midas are real and affecting, it’s the look, the sound, and the scent of St. Hauda’s Land that stay with you after turning the last page of this beautiful novel.

Buzzy Jackson is the author of “A Bad Woman Feeling Good: Blues and the Women Who Sing Them.’’

By Ali Shaw
Henry Holt, 304 pp., $24