Strange things are happening on the remote and snowbound archipelago of St. Hauda’s Land. Magical winged creatures flit around the icy bogland, albino animals hide themselves in the snow-glazed woods, and Ida Maclaird is slowly turning into glass. Ida is an outsider in these parts who has only visited the islands once before. Yet during that one fateful visit the glass transformation began to take hold, and now she has returned in search of a cure.
Given the novel title and book description I don't think I have to issue a spoiler warning, when I say the story is about a girl Ida who has a condition in which her flesh turns to glass. Ida returns to the bleak winter landscape of St Hauda's Land - with its foul-smelling bogs and haggard woodland. She hopes to meet a man she met before, who told her about bodies of glass in the bog water. Instead she meets the young photographer Midas who is pursuing the perfect light conditions for a photograph.
Midas is emotionally damaged by his severe father, who unbeknownst to Midas had a heart of glass. For the young man the camera has become a means of looking at the world, whilst being removed from it. St Hauda's is a monochrome world - snow, gray clouds and mist. There is even an animal whose gaze turns everything white. Midas' world is likewise monochrome, until he meets Ida. The story at first seems to be a quest for a cure for Ida's condition, but is instead about Midas' transformation through the power of love back in to flesh and blood. I found myself engaged in the young couple's story, even if I wanted to shake Midas at times. Ida's resilience in the face of what is happening to her was moving - I cried at the end.
But I didn't engage with the story as much as I would have expected. The book is clearly magic realism. St Hauda is very like a group of Scottish islands, but its fauna are alien - tiny cattle with wings, jellyfish that emit a strange light as they die, the basilisk deer animal - and of course there are the glass bodies in the bogs. Strangely I felt that there was perhaps too much of the weird. We are introduced the cattle insects early on, I found them hard to believe and a bit twee nor am I sure that they were necessary. I also felt that there was not much there in terms of story and that the plotline kept being broken. Ali Shaw's descriptions are full of beautiful similes, but I felt these sometimes got in the way - less is more. Shaw extends the story by flashbacks into Midas' childhood and the lives of his parents and that of Ida's mother's former admirer. All very good, but I don't feel that these helped the story move along and at the end I felt too much was unresolved; not that I expect magic realism novels to explain the magic.
That being said this is a book that I found myself thinking about after I had finished it and some of it is quite beautiful and indeed magical.