Book World: Elizabeth Hand reviews 'The Girl With Glass Feet' by Ali Shaw

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By Elizabeth Hand
Tuesday, February 23, 2010


By Ali Shaw

Henry Holt. 287 pp. $24

Americans force-fed Disney candyfloss from childhood forget how dark fairy tales can be. Blood streams from the toes of would-be brides who try to cram their feet into Cinderella's glass slipper. Snow White's stepmother is forced to dance in red-hot iron shoes until she dies. Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid trades her finned tail for human feet and thereafter feels as though she walks on razor-sharp blades.

And what's with all the feet? The Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg has traced myriad examples of mutilated feet across centuries and cultures, from ancient Greece to ancient China. He believes the motif represents an archetype of what he calls "mythical and ritualistic lameness." The British novelist Ali Shaw has created a memorable addition to this fabulist pantheon in his gorgeous first novel, "The Girl With Glass Feet," a book reminiscent of such classic fantasies as Hope Mirrlees's "Lud-in-the-Mist" and Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast sequence.

Like those novels, Shaw's is set in an imaginary place that evokes both our mundane world and a far stranger one that exists, half-hidden, within its familiar woods and shops and chicken coops. St. Hauda's Land is an archipelago just 30 miles from the mainland (what mainland is never made clear), a chain of craggy, shadow-haunted islands whose cultural isolation and former dependence upon the sea -- and, now, tourism -- evoke places like the Faroe Islands, Iceland and the Outer Hebrides.

Eons ago, a volcanic eruption created St. Hauda's Land, where "in nooks and crannies uncatalogued transmogrifications took place." There are legends of a being whose glance turns other creatures dead-white. A ghostly light takes on the features of dead loved ones, to beguile and then blind travelers, leaving them to die in the wilderness. And as a skewed island man named Henry Fuwa tells young Ida Maclaird, "Would you believe . . . there are glass bodies here, hidden in the bog water?"

Ida, a tourist to St. Hauda's Land, does not believe Fuwa, despite the fact that he has shared with her another of the archipelago's wonders: a creature she takes to be an insect, until she picks it up. "It had butterfly wings, like flakes of patterned wax," Shaw writes. "Under the wings it had a hairy body with tiny horns. . . . It had an ox's head, no bigger than her thumbnail, with a pink muzzle drawn into a grimace. A white splodge between its nostrils. The impossible detail of a scar on its bottom lip. There was warmth and a heartbeat in its body like that of a newly hatched chick."

Only when Ida returns home to the mainland does she make another bizarre, less benign discovery: a sliver of crystal embedded in her foot. Her failed attempts to remove it cause excruciating pain; as the days pass, she realizes that the crystalline growth is extending, through her toes to her ankle.

Desperate for a cure, she returns to the island in search of Fuwa. There she is glimpsed in the woods by a photographer named Midas Crook. Ida falls in love with Midas, but he is more transfixed by the mystery of her glass feet, which he secretly photographs -- he is enthralled by contact sheets but repelled by human contact. Over the course of this eerie, bewitching novel, the mixture of love and grief and the imminence of death become as memorable as Ida's mysterious, dreadful transformation and Midas's more achingly human one.

Shaw acknowledges the influence of writers like Andersen, Kafka and Borges (Shaw's menagerie of perfectly detailed, marvelous creatures could have stepped from the pages of "The Book of Imaginary Beings"). But it's Andersen's melancholy tales, steeped in loss and a brooding sense of fatedness, that shimmer around the edges of "The Girl With Glass Feet." Every character in this novel yearns for a love that seems just out of reach: Midas's unhappy parents; Henry Fuwa; Carl Maulsen, who loved Ida's mother; Emiliana, the island woman who might have a cure for Ida's illness; Ida herself -- all of them are bound by threads of betrayal and desire and hope, until Fate cuts those threads, calmly and without remorse.

Hand's novel "Illyria" will be published this spring.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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