The gorgeous cover art and silver-edged pages of The Girl with Glass Feet was enough to pique my interest. On the back cover Patrick Ness described it as “a rare orchid of a book, beautiful and eccentric and exquisitely sad.” I picked it up anticipating something wonderful. But while it came close, in some ways it missed the mark for me and I have found it difficult to put my finger on why.
The Girl with Glass Feet opens with Midas chasing the perfect photo in the woods near Ettinsford, on the fictional St Hauda’s Land. A photographer, Midas copes with the word by seeing it through a camera’s eye. In the woods he comes across Ida, who once was a free spirit but is now anchored down by a foot condition. One night while she sleeps Midas peeks under her socks to discover that her feet are turning into glass:
“Her toes were pure glass. Smooth, clear, shining glass. Glinting crescents of light edged each toenail and each crease between the joints of each digit. Seen through her toes, the silver spots on the bed sheet diffused into metallic vapours. The ball of her foot was glass too, but murkier, losing its transparency in a gradient until, near her ankle, it reached skin: matt and flesh-toned like any other. And yet… those few inches of transition astonished him even more than her solid glass toes. Bones materialized faintly inside the ball of her foot, then became lily white and precise near her unaltered ankle, shrouded along the way by translucent red ligaments in denser layers. In the curve of her instep wisps of blood hung trapped like twirls of paint in marbles. And there were places in the glass where the petrification was incomplete. Here was a pinprick mole, there a fine blonde hair.”
As their relationship blossoms Midas begins to reveal the emotional issues he has as a result of his cold, cruel father; he doesn’t want to be like him, and yet as a result of him he has difficulty being close to anyone. Ida opens up to Midas about her feet, and he tries to help her by going to see the mysterious Henry Fuwa, who she thinks might know something about her condition because of his contact with another highly unusual, secret, magical aspect of St Hauda’s Land: palm-sized, flying cattle:
“It had butterfly wings, like flakes of patterned wax. Under the wings it had a hairy body with tiny horns. Its fur looked very dry in the hot summer rays. 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.”
As the passages I’ve selected show, in The Girl with Glass Feet Shaw has created a poetic, imaginative novel. It also has a very strong sense of place with regular descriptions of the cold, marshy, rocky, boggy island. But as it gained momentum I started to feel a little disappointed with it, I just wasn’t enjoying it as much anymore and I think the problem was there was too much going on and too much of a focus on the past. Shaw goes into not only Midas’ parents’ back story, but also Ida’s, whose parents’ history is somewhat similar to Midas’ in some respects, making the novel a bit repetitive. Its inclusion was unnecessary to Ida’s character development. Carl Maulsen, who is obsessed with Ida’s dead mother, who married someone else, also plays a significant part in the story. But I would have liked Shaw to include less of Maulsen and Ida’s parents and more of Henry Fuwa and the cattle. I loved the sections these fairy-like cattle featured in, and Shaw brought them to life so effectively that I think they merited a larger role.
While The Girl with Glass Feet has its flaws, but I still highly recommend it and am glad to have read it. It is an extraordinary book and quite an accomplishment for a debut author.