I’m back from my holiday in a dour mood after suffering food-poisoning in Sweden. So, I’m going to spread Scandinavian gloom by choosing `The Girl With Glass Feet’ by Ali Shaw as my recommended read this week. This was first published by Atlantic Books in 2009 and it’s available on Kindle. Shaw is a British writer but the story is set in St Hauda’s Land, a remote archipelago that is part of an unnamed Scandinavian country. `The Girl With Glass Feet’  has everything you might expect to find in a thoroughly `Northern’ novel  – tragic love stories, mysterious deaths, dark family secrets, bleak landscapes, loads of angst and very few laughs. It is also beautifully written and not as depressing to read as the plot summary will make it sound.

In the grim town of Ettinsford, chronically shy Midas Crook works in a florist’s shop owned by his best friend, Gustav. Midas is obsessed with taking black and white photographs of everything around him. One winter’s day, when trying to photograph a shaft of light, he meets a girl called Ida MacLaird who is searching for a half-Japanese recluse named Henry Fuwa. On her previous visit to the islands, Ida had a strange encounter with Henry who told her extraordinary tales about a herd of miniature winged animals, a creature in the woods who turns everything she looks at white, and glass bodies hidden in the bog. Now something terrible is happening to Ida – her body is slowly turning into glass from the feet upwards. She has come back to St Hauda’s Land because she believes that Henry is the one person who might know what is happening to her and how to stop it.  Midas discovers that his estranged mother fell in love with  Henry when she was still married to Midas’ cruel and controlling father. He traces the recluse to the cottage in the marshes where Henry has dedicated his life to protecting the winged animals. Henry shows Midas the body of a man turned completely into glass and warns that this will soon happen to Ida, unless she kills herself first, as other sufferers from the glass-sickness have done. As Ida’s condition worsens, she and Midas travel St Hauda’s Land, pursuing its legends and desperately hoping to find a cure before it is too late…

`The Girl With Glass Feet’ was published as a `literary novel’  rather than genre fiction, so detailed and naturalistic characterization takes priority over action. We get multiple views of Midas’ troubled  childhood and his parents’ unhappy marriage. Rather less interesting is a strand relating the story of  the professor who owns the cottage where Ida is staying and his unhealthy obsession with Ida and her dead mother, but this is part of the novel’s exploration of different kinds of love. The plot contains examples of selfless and transformational love, of possessive and destructive love, and saddest of all, of love that fails. No-one in the story is a complete monster. All the characters have troubles and sorrows to bear but some do it more gracefully than others.

Opinions about this book seem to divide sharply between those who find it magical and moving and those who call it cold and uninvolving. Socially-inept Midas is not an easy character to like, so much will depend on whether you can believe that brave, vibrant Ida would find comfort and then love with Midas. Shaw did manage to make me belive it and there are other reasons for reading this novel. Shaw’s poetic writing creates an extraordinary sense of place. He made me see the dreary settlements, the snowy forests and mountains, the sinister peat bogs and luminous jellyfish-filled seas, through Midas’ camera lense and Ida’s sensitive eyes.  With its evocative place names – Grem Forst, Glamsgallow, Lomdendol Tor, Martyr’s Pitfall – St Hauda’s Land is convincing both as a close-knit post-whaling community  in economic decline and as an eerie realm where legendary creatures still roam the wild places. Wisely, no attempt is made to explain the stranger elements of the story.

Choosing an invented condition for Ida, makes her plight seem relevant to anyone who has suffered any kind of serious illness or injury, or seen it happen to someone they love. The sense of an alien invasion of the body, the futile search for answers about why it has happened, and the willingness to try any possible cure will all seem familiar. A painful jelly-fish sting remedy tried by Ida is not so different from the brutality of chemotherapy. This isn’t cosy comfort fiction. `The Girl With Glass Feet’  argues for facing up to the worst and making the best of the time you have. Some of the characters have survived terrible blows of fate, like young widower, Gustav, bravely bringing up his daughter; others, like Midas’ mother sitting in a retirement village `waiting to be rescued’, have just given up. Even if she is doomed, Ida still has the power to change  Midas’ life for the better. At one point, Midas decides to keep fighting because `I don’t think there’s a what if…but I still hope to find one somewhere’. The best Fantasy literature is all about`What if…’ and that’s why I read it. Until next week.