The Girl with Glass Feet by Ali Shaw
My grandma says that you can't squeeze blood from a turnip. That's true, but in this book, you might be able to. Ali Shaw has created a world in which the differences between flesh and stone aren't so cut and dry in his first novel, The Girl with Glass Feet. Ida Maclaird suffers from an unconventional disease: her body is slowly turning into glass from the feet on up, and she is desperate to find a cure. In a refreshing turn of events, instead of waiting fairy-tale style for a prince to fit her with a glass slipper, she travels to foggy St. Hauda's Land to seek a man she thinks may be able to help her take the glass off of her feet, or at least keep it from continuing to overtake her legs. It seems that if such a cure exists, St. Hauda's Land is the place to find it. Home of moth-winged bulls and a Medusa-like animal that turns everything it sees pure white; it seems natural that the secret to her odd cellular transformation would be found in this magical land. However, answers don't come easily for Ida in this secluded, unwelcoming place, and the few men that she meets are reluctant to reveal any secrets, neither the lands' nor their own.
Where the novel truly shines are in its descriptions of the island's quirks and of Ida's glass feet themselves. Ida becomes a sort of symbolic revision of Cinderella's glass slipper as her every cell becomes glass, leaving her bones and sinews intact but transparent. The effects this transformation has on Ida's body are treated realistically, leaving her hobbling with crutches and gasping in pain as the glass encroaches upon her insides. Despite the difficulty of her situation, Ida retains a natural optimism and verve that belie her condition, and she possesses none of the brittle fragility that her glass appendages imply. Ida's physical pain becomes a distraction from her emotional anguish, as she debates whether to continue seeking a cure or to simply enjoy what time she has left before her organs crystallize and stop functioning.
Ida's "glassification" is reminiscent of a similar treatment A.S. Byatt gives a character in her Little Black Book of Stories. In Byatt's version of cellular transformation, a woman named Ines who has recently lost her beloved mother goes to the hospital with stomach pains and undergoes surgery. When she removes her bandages a few days later, she discovers that the area around the incision has become hard and cold. As time passes, the stone patch spreads, until her entire body is made of different types of rock: glimmering quartz, sandstone, lime. In Ines's case, her body manages to continue functioning, despite its massive changes. Her physical transformation becomes a symbolic thing of beauty. Ida's transformation is quite different. While her glass features are striking and oddly compelling, they contain an element of the grotesque. As Ida's flesh turns to glass, her blood vessels and muscle fibers become visible, allowing Ida to literally see herself through this impossible journey. At the same time, the cause of her condition and its course don’t have any clear-cut beginning, nor do they form any patterns, making any possible symbolism much more difficult to pin down.
Though Ida is the titular girl with glass feet, Shaw's story is more about her newfound relationship with a man named Midas and his response to Ida's condition than it is about Ida herself. Midas Crook is an amateur photographer obsessed with light, and is much more comfortable among images than reality. He's haunted by memories of his father, a similarly misanthropic academic who killed himself when Midas was young. Midas's mother has since become a shell of herself, and Midas fears, quite rightly, that he is destined to become his father. Ida's entrance into his life shatters his isolation. Ida's attraction to Midas at first seems unfounded, but their shared awkwardness grows into something more closely resembling a relationship, despite Midas's reluctance to let anyone get past his own cold, hard, exterior. Ida recklessly ingratiates herself with him, unwilling to spend time breaking down his defenses when she knows her time with him is probably limited. Unfortunately, as Midas finally begins to embrace his humanity, Ida’s is being stolen away.
The Girl with Glass Feet is ultimately a love story, albeit one with an unconventional setting and set of obstacles. On the surface, the book is magical, seemingly as transparent as Ida's toes. Like all the best fairy tales, though, it's tinted with a pervading sense of unease that sticks with the reader long after the cover is closed. Midas's love for a woman who is leaving the real world he despises, Ida's lost grip on humanity, the very land on which they meet, are all deeper and darker than they seem, making this a book well worth reading.
The Girl with Glass Feet by Ali Shaw