”Maybe you noticed something different. When you returned to St Hauda’s Land. A taste on the air. A mannerism the birds have. A peculiar snowfall, making almost mathematical patterns. A white animal that’s not an albino... for the most part, people are either born here and are used to these things, or they move away. There aren’t many people who come here.” (p. 108)Midas Crook lives on the remote northern archipelago of St Hauda’s Land, perfectly accustomed to the almost incestuous tangle of island life, and the strangeness all around him. His father committed suicide in a grandiose Viking-style burning boat; his mother lives, lamed and maimed by a luminous jellyfish, in the tantalisingly-named hamlet of Martyr’s Leap. Somewhere in the woods is an animal of pure white (except the blue patch on the back of its neck): every living being that sees this unnamed beast becomes bleached, colourless, white as snow. (This is a very wintry novel.) When Midas makes the acquaintance of Ida Maclaird -- who first visited the islands the previous summer, as a tourist -- and discovers that she is slowly, feet-first, turning to glass, it surprises him but does not shake his world view.
This is a beautiful book -- beautifully written, and a beautiful physical object. (the hardcover has mirror-bright page edges). Shaw’s prose sings; the island’s stark monochromatic landscapes made me shiver on a hot summer’s day; there’s a sense of interconnectedness, of hidden meaning, from the glass body in the bog to the possible use of the local jellyfish as a cure for vitrification. (I loathe jellyfish, am quite phobic about them: but the jellyfish in this novel are marvellous, lovely, alive.)
Unfortunately too much of that meaning remains hidden. I found myself hoping for revelation if not resolution: instead, I came away with a sense of having forgotten the salient details of a beautiful but disturbing dream. The key to this novel is transformation, but by the last page only Midas really seems likely to metamorphose into something better -- and that’s by no means certain. Other characters seem trapped, literally or figuratively: frozen, drowned, imprisoned.
St Hauda’s Land reminds me of Margaret Elphinstone’s islands: Hy Brasil, Ellan Vannin. The strangeness, the little mysteries presented as mundane, remind me more of Patricia McKillip. I’ll look forward to more of Shaw’s fiction.