BOOK REVIEW in TLS
Ali Shaw’s debut, The Girl with Glass Feet, a novel-cum-fairytale published to acclaim in 2009, was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and went on to win the Desmond Elliott Prize.
The Man Who Rained is of the same ilk. Billed as a “modern-day fable about the elements of love”, it entwines contemporary concerns into the fantastical. When her father, a storm-chaser, dies in a tornado and her boyfriend proposes, Elsa’s New York life falls apart. Only a vision of Thunderstown, the lights seen from an aeroplane, as “a network of interlocked spirals glimmering through the dark” holds any hope. Elsa flees New York on a quest to find out who she really is.
Untouched by modernity, rife with folklore and superstition, roamed by fairytale characters and loping dogs whose eyes reflect the sky, Thunderstown is an otherworldly place subject to the whims of the weather. It is surrounded by four mountains, four storms “weary from whipping and raging through the air”, which are inhabited by a series of fabular creatures. These include a man that dissolves into a cloud, who becomes the subject of Elsa’s love: Finn Munro, born of a thundercloud, cumulonimbus, who lives exiled from the town.
Ali Shaw charms with his depictions of this magical and moody world. His pen a paintbrush, he conjures a land that is bold and bright, effusive with primary colour. Indeed, his art is his imagination. The creatures that populate the tale are part weather: canaries are cadmium bursts, born of sunbeams; raindrops metamorphose into insects, their bodies “like murky water”; and when killed, the skin of the ‘brook horse’ is not full of flesh and bone but “dirty flood water, seeping outwards from a shrivelled coat.” However, The Man who Rained fast falls short of its own pretensions as a modern-day fable.
The power of the fable lies in the moral lesson it gives, the allure of the fairytale is in the sinister. The Man Who Rained fails on both these accounts: it lacks the substance and menace necessary to give it gravitas or appeal. The magical and the modern are irreconciled. The concerns of the latter, which could be construed as archetypal struggles with death, love and self-knowledge, appear instead as frothy anachronism. The tale does not succeed in reaching beyond the fantastical world it concocts. It reads as a love story, flimsy, predictable at best, dressed-up in the garb of fable.
The Man Who Rained by Ali Shaw
Published by Atlantic Books
978 0 85789 032 0
This review was published in the TLS, 24th February 2012.