There are some books that revel in plot, action and events.
Other books – perhaps quieter books – are content to develop narrative: characters and settings, relationships and language.
This book by Ali Shaw is very clearly and very effectively one of the latter: little really happens, but so much is created.
Lets take the setting initially. The book is set on the fictional island of St. Hauda’s Land, somehow far Scottish or Norweigan in flavour. It is the perfect setting for this novel of transformation as the sea and the land are constantly changing and metamorphosing: the very fabric of the island is being eaten away by the sea. Within the island are towns, forests and bogs all of which contribute their distinctive character to the novel.
Next, the characters: the delightful Ida Macleod and the less appealing Midas Crook. Midas… named for the King whose touch transformed everything to gold; and Ida who is transforming from the feet up into glass. Yes, glass.
Don’t expect Shaw to give you any explanation. Explanations are not offered by Shaw. No more for this transformation than for the creature whose glance can turn everything it sees white or the moth-winged cattle that also inhabit this island. Ida is turning into glass. Those characters who seek explanations and cures are the least likeable and the closest Shaw gets to villainy.
And that tranformation is physically traumatic, genuinely terrifying but visually stunning.
“Her toes were pure glass. Smooth, clear, shining glass. Glinting crescents of light edged each toenail and each crease betweent he joints of each digit. Seen through her toes, the silver spots on the bedsheet 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 materialised faintly inside the ball of her foot, then became lily-white and precise nearer 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 where the transformation was incomplete. Here was a pinprick mole, there, a fine blonde hair.”
It is no surprise that the writing is so visual: the majority of the book is narrated from the point of view of Midas who is cripplingly shy and / or capable of being located somewhere on the autistic spectrum disorder. He is a photographer. The simple image of his camera (disappointingly digital) as the barrier and (literally) lense through which he sees the world but also distances himself from the world is a beautiful one – speaking as someone who has experience of ASD. Again, as a photographer, he is allied with the static and the captured moment in a story about fluidity and transformation; Ida is transforming into a solid just as his photographs capture movement and still it. Don’t expect value judgements in the book – Smith does not lecture you to embrace change or counsel you to celebrate the static – but the play between the still and the mobile, between static and transformation is beautiful and magical.
The ending of the novel approached with a terrible sense of inevitability and was beautiful, heart wrenching and even managed to wring a tear from this cynical teacher.
A fantastic, fantastical fairy tale of a book!