Hearts of glass

Ali Shaw’s modern fairy tale
By SHARON STEEL  |  April 6, 2010

WHEN MIDAS MET IDA: In order to fall in love, Shaw’s characters must first wreak havoc.

The Girl With Glass Feet | By Ali Shaw | Henry Holt | 304 pages | $24
In Ali Shaw’s debut novel, death by glass becomes a star-crossed love story in the vein of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale — a tragedy that strips away its isolated characters’ fears and defenses and reveals their bravery. Ida Maclaird and Midas Crook are caught in the crossfire of a devastating, magical ailment: Ida’s feet have turned to glass, and her entire body will soon follow suit. She chooses Midas to sustain her through the transformation that will eventually snuff out her life. Midas, in turn, is so insecure and disconnected from the world that he uses photography the way some people use the Internet — as an emotional filter. Like a Web addict fine-tuning avatars and profiles, refining the ephemera of on-line paths and patterns, Midas isolates himself with his photography while avoiding any direct engagement with life. Until he encounters Ida.

Midas and Ida meet on St. Hauda’s Land, a fictional, snowbound archipelago where color has given way to gray days and monochrome nights — the three main islands “looked like the swatted corpse of a blob-eyed insect.” Years before her affliction takes hold, a man named Henry Fuwa asks Ida, “Would you believe there are glass bodies here, hidden in the bog water?” Fuwa is one of the many central characters who fan out from the centrifugal force of Ida and Midas’s relationship.

The residents of St. Hauda’s live quietly and privately, keeping individual secrets that support and torment them — like the existence of an animal that turns everything it looks at white, tiny cows that have moth-like wings, and jellyfish that can light up the sea with colored lights as they decompose. But there’s also a number of people who, like Ida, find their hearts, feet, bellies, and flesh slowly hardening into glass. Some passively accept their fate, but Ida is searching for a cure. Failing that, she wants the kind of love that, by time she has become a petrified ornament, can change the person she leaves behind.

Shaw’s prose is rich in imagery, often built from minuscule details. The big ones, the showstoppers, can quicken the pulse. “He had wanted to kiss her but when the moment arose his head had been yanked away as if nerves were a bridle,” he writes of one of Ida and Midas’s false starts. “He wondered how you could alter your gut reactions, when your body overrode your control with the same power it used to jerk back your hand from a burning hot surface or throw your body away from an oncoming crash.”

This is agony as a beautiful dreamscape, one you watch as much as read. Midas and Ida reach a point where their shared and individual curses can wreak the havoc necessary for them to fall in love. “Have you ever hoped for something?”, Midas’s mother asks him. “And held out for it against all the odds? Until everything you did was ridiculous?” Hope and loss are exactly what give Midas and Ida the courage to unpick the locks of their hearts.

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