When we think of fairy tales, princesses and castles and happily-ever-after spring to mind, largely because of the sanitized, Disneyfied versions we’re familiar with. But look further back, to Andersen and the Brothers Grimm and traditional folk tales of the magical and supernatural, and a much darker side emerges, with monsters and death and endings that are not so happy.
Ali Shaw’s engrossing and moving debut novel, “The Girl With Glass Feet,” falls between these extremes. It’s a story of a strange land and its strange inhabitants, but at heart it’s a sincere but unsentimental love story.
Young photographer Midas Crook has lived all his life in St. Hauda’s Land, a chain of isolated islands, the kind of place people move away from, but no one ever moves to. The people who remain are connected simply by virtue of familiarity — they can’t help but know all about each other, they can’t escape the shared history of this place.
But nature holds the power in St. Hauda’s land, and the natural order is not quite the same as it is on the mainland. Rain and snow turn the rocky landscape monochrome, shadows lurk in the woods, and misty bogs hold eerie mysteries.
In this isolated place, Midas has isolated himself, preferring to view life through his lens, not getting too close to anyone.
And one day Ida Maclaird appears, a stranger on the islands, but known to one man. She’s come looking for a cure, or a reason, or solace of some sort — she is the girl with glass feet, and the rest of her body is slowly joining them.
As Ida shakes up some lives in St. Hauda’s Land, and as she befriends Midas and pulls him out of solitude, the long-kept secrets of many people tumble out. Some of these secrets need to see daylight; others are past fixing. Most of the characters are dealing with deaths — literally and figuratively — of people they have loved, or even themselves.
All of this sounds grim, but the joy that Ida and Midas share, after Midas takes those first risky steps toward love, is so beautifully captured that their happiness beats back the drear and shadows.
Shaw’s writing evokes the gloom and harshness of the landscape in great detail; the similes get a little obtrusive in a few spots but overall the dreamy atmosphere curls around you until you see, hear and smell the moors and bogs.
But story isn’t sacrificed for vivid scenery: The magic is a few little matter-of-fact things, rather than the main focus of the plot, which works well with the overall story, and the characters, despite or perhaps because of their flaws, are realistic and sympathetic. Anytime I find myself giving advice to people in a book, I think that’s a sign of how much I care about how their lives turn out.
And the plot may be a love story at heart, but it takes some unexpected turns, with an ending that bridges the gap between fairy tales old and new.