Shards of light and dapples of grey are reflected amongst the glades and the bogs and the snow-laden river paths. You certainly can’t buy company in St. Hauda’s Land, a secretive isolated group of islands, “a little archipelago thirty miles northwest of the mainland.” This is a strange, mercurial, and almost magic-like world, where one winter, Iris Maclaird comes to stay, strangely afflicted with a disorder where her toes are becoming like pure smooth clear shining glass, “with glinting crescents of light.”
Midas Crook, a reclusive photographer, first spies Iris wearing a black dress, white makeup and leather boots, carrying a walking stick, her face possessed of a ghostly quality. She catches Midas off guard - not just her boots, hair and face, but also the way the real Ida is somehow more alluring than the filmic one. Midas is at once entranced and curious, especially after Ida’s poignant confession that she can’t feel her toes and doesn’t quite know where her socks end and her boots begin.
In a café with steamed-up windows, Midas is positive that Ida looks unwell, but this doesn’t prevent him from surreptitiously snapping photographs of her while she’s sleeping. Soon enough, Ida
is telling him of her mum’s friend Carl Maulsen, whose cottage she is staying at while she avidly searches for a cure for her feet. A professor of classics, Carl was a trusted colleague of Midas’s father, but he also knew Ida when she was a little girl. Carl becomes a key player in Iris's life as she
turns to Midas for help and support.
Henry Fuwa, “a recluse in the wilderness of recluses” seems to be the only man who can offer any clue to the strange transformation happening beneath Ida's boots and her many-layered socks. Ensconced in his vine-covered cottage, never quite fitting into his life and finding few friends, Henry cultivates a herd of strange “moth-winged bulls.” Ida is the only person he trusts enough to deliberately reveal the secret of the bulls and the strange disease that seems to be consuming her.
His debut novel seething with an urgent magical realism, Shaw revels in this place and its people who seem to be as stilted and monochrome as the sets and stars of pre-color television. The chapters brim with images from this strange collection of islands, along with the intimacies of the people who inhabit them where rain is a constant
(like a “gray woolen join between the lands and the sky”) and a dragonfly’s abandoned nymph skin is like the glow of light that passes through Ida’s feet, “making her crystallized blood sparkle.”
Alternating between Midas’s dysfunctional childhood and the rampages of his cold, cruel father and
his mother - an unwilling victim of her husband’s painful abuses - Shaw’s tale gradually melds Midas and Iris’s bourgeoning love affair with Midas’s fervent efforts to save her. Eventually, Midas goes to Henry demanding that he help his muse. Only Henry knows the secret of the glass bog body and the hypothesis that its transformation accelerated in an instant, eventually leaving it as a cold, hard glass statue.
But, like the invisible coats of ice on the pavements, this novel ultimately left me feeling rather cold and frigid. From the magical blue-winged insects to the spark of electric yellow in the bodies of Shaw's lantern-sized jellyfish, it all comes across as a bit silly, like a big-budget Peter Jackson film on steroids
- visually stunning, but all sort of forced and artificial and sometimes difficult to figure out. Still, Iris remains a fascinating character, and we certainly feel for her in her quiet desperation and eventual resignation as she transforms into this “half-girl, half ornament” forced to make peace with a changed existence, no matter the cost.