The Girl in the Glass
by Jeffrey Ford
Published by William Morrow
304 pages, 2005
Who is the Monster Now?
Reviewed by Iain Emsley
Jeffrey Ford has made a literary career of oddball but interesting novels. He often comes from the left field of the genres in which he writes. The Portrait of Mrs Charbuque asked the reader to construct the image of the central character without describing her. Ford's latest, The Girl in the Glass, is a strange novel; it exposes the sleights of hand that power cons -- yet a most wonderful piece of trickery is pulled on the reader. Ford poses questions for the reader this time regarding truth and monstrosity.
It is 1932. Schell, Anthony and Diego tour America posing as spiritualists, fleecing the rich and unwary. When Charlotte Barnes, the daughter of wealthy family, goes missing, they meet the concerned father and begin to search for her. As they do, the troupe comes across Lydia Howe who is also working Mr. Barnes, though not for the reasons she claims. Both see the con as everything: that most of life is an illusion to be either maintained or exploited.
As Diego, a Mexican immigrant recently "adopted" by Schell, works his illusion, he meets Isabel, another migrant, and the two begin to fall in love, grounding both of them in their own reality. Both come into contact with the darker side of the 1930s, the belief in eugenics and racial science. As the depression deepens, scapegoats are sought and Ford melds history and fiction. He utilizes the public record of the Eugenics Records Office and its search for racial purity through science.
As the mystery twists through Schell's investigations, Ford develops a version of the Frankenstein myth. What he shows is that every generation remakes the monster, playing both with a physical construction and a mental one. As the Eugenics Record Office comes under further scrutiny, they realize that the conspiracy reaches further upward than they imagine. Unlike a standard thriller, Ford does not claim to follow the trail to the head. He allows it to go as far as he can and as far as the characters would be able to follow. It remains a source of fear and spurs each protagonist to hide.
Ford develops a tangible sense of horror with the twins, another of Ford's sleights of hand. Ford plays with the idea of monstrosity in both halves and asks the reader to question their own ideas. Is the physical worse than the idea of the grotesque? In part The Girl in the Glass continues the question posed in Frankenstein regarding the identity of the monster: is he creator or creation?
A sense of the period is maintained through the voices and language, but the author keeps the two separate. He mentions various sources in the afterword but, as with Charbuque, he allows the fiction to take precedence rather than using it as a vehicle to relate his research. Instead he evokes a nearby period of history and allows the reader to reflect upon its contemporary meanings.
Once again Ford has written a surprising novel which reflects what the reader would like it to, beguiling and welcoming and thoughtful. One is reminded of the unpredictability of the narrator in James's The Turn of the Screw and how the reader approaches the narrator affects how they view the story. The Girl in the Glass is elegant and graceful but never reveals its true mystery. | August 2005
Iain Emsley is a reviewer and critic. He is researching a history of fantasy in chidren's literature and owns a specialist bookshop.