On the one hand it’s an impressive debut novel with characterisation which grips and shakes you as it touches on the lives of a diverse group of people who are connected by their experiences in an metaphorically incestuous community on the remote island of St Hauda’s Land.
On the other, the narrative weaves these stories together as if they should lead the reader somewhere and I don’t see the point in a red herring outside of crime fiction. For me, they only detract from the story being told here. It’s as if Shaw hasn’t decided whether he’s writing a fairytale or a story which contains magic realism. It might seem trivial, irrelevant even, but to me they are very different genres and while I’m in favour of a little generic cross dressing, I think that these genres can’t be fairly combined without creating a story which isn’t entirely satisfactory.
If we take Ida’s feet as the main story and bring with that the associated stories of Midas’ father, Henry Fuwa and Midas’ mother, Carl Maulsen and his obsession with Freya… good, you’ve got a great story and it’s worth reading the book for this. But then you look at the extra touches that have been thrown in and they become red herrings which, if the story was a fairytale, should lead to resolution and, if it is intended as magic realism, begin to look like little more than creative conceits. What, for example, is the point of the constant references to the creature which turns everything it looks at white? What is the point of Midas’ father’s letter? By the time I finished the book, I felt underwhelmed by what should have been a really moving conclusion because I was still waiting to see why the author had devoted so much attention to writing about these details which were never revisited.
In addition to that, I think the book as a whole could have done with a harder edit. The language is more flowery than is generally fashionable these days, leading to passages such as this which made me roll my eyes:
“Overnight the head of a fat old rose in Catherine’s had shed petals like burnt bits of ribbon into a glass vase. Midas stared sadly at the warped red planets in the water’s cosmos and thought of Ida’s legs.”
I can’t believe that got past an editor without a request to slash either the simile or the metaphor. But worse for me was the inclusion of occasional mistakes which should have been picked up by anyone who read the final draft of the book. For example, on page 81 of my copy, Denver is described as “a mouse-haired seven-year-old with a grin full of disorganized teeth” then on page 82 as “an earnest child with a whizz of ginger hair, eyes too big for her freckled face and newly grown adult teeth overlapping like a hand of cards”. Why do we have the double description of her teeth, let alone the conflicting descriptions of her hair colour only a page apart?
This will seem very petty, but the litter of awkwardly flowery language and silly oversights, coupled with unnecessary red herrings and plot holes really did detract from my enjoyment of what was otherwise a really imaginative story with great potential.
Have you read this book? How did you feel about these points?