The Girl in the Glass : A Novel
by Jeffrey Ford
Review by Colleen Cahill
William Morrow Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0066211271
Date: 01 August, 2005 List Price $23.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
In some books, the fantasy elements are in your face. This is not always a bad thing, as Tolkien proves, but sometimes subtly is the better choice. It is something that Jeffrey Ford excels at, especially in his new work The Girl in the Glass, as a gentle blend of hard reality and the fantastic join to make a compelling story that leaves you guessing at the truth.
1932, the height of the Great Depression, is a tough time for many people, but Thomas Schell, Henry Bruhl and their "ward" Diego, a 17-year-old orphaned illegal Mexican immigrant, have a thriving business - as con men. Running a spiritual ring, they prey on rich people who seek to speak with the dead. Through the use of trickery, slight-of-hand (and foot) and some interesting effects with butterflies, this trio has a comfortable life. For Diego, who was rescued as a child from the streets of New York and is now living life as a phony Hindu swami, this could be his future. Diego realizes his good fortune in being with Schell and Bruhl and not just because he is well fed, but because Schell treats him as a son, educating Diego both as a con man and through private tutors, preparing the young man for college. A big dream, but one that hits a roadblock during one seance, when Schell sees the form of a little girl in a glass door. Later he recognizes the girl as one the newspapers list as missing and this drives Schell to discover more, leading his companions down a twisted path of bootleggers, the Ku Klux Klan and the Eugenics Records Office. This is a story with a convoluted plot: are the con men being conned or have they stumbled across the real thing, a ghost reaching from beyond the grave?
The Girl in the Glass is a world that few readers will know, one of confidence games, carnival folk and tricksters. Schell knows all those who travel the mid-way circuit, whether as a fat man, rubber woman or magician and Bruhl also has close ties to this community, as he was a strong man who for many years who worked under the billing of "Anthony Cleopatra." Ford's sense of play and humor are scattered through the story, sometimes creating snickers and sometimes belly laughs: my favorite is the opening line to the second chapter: "Every time the widow Morrison cried, she farted, long and low like a call from beyond the grave." Since this was occurring during a seance, Diego had trouble keeping a straight face, but I showed no such restraint.
Even though this story is centered around con men, it is still very warm and touching. The three associates care deeply for each other, with both men doing their best to raise Diego and give him a chance at some life other than the one they lead. One can almost understand how easy it would be to justify living such a life, especially when your targets are rich people who can afford the service. The power of Ford's writing carries us through the dark times of the Depression, taking us past the sleazy con games to the hearts of people doing their best to survive.
Critics have called Ford's work subtle, stylish, surprising, shrewd and original. I agree with all of these descriptions and add compelling, humorous, and a very good read. If you have never tried Jeffrey Ford, get your hands on any of his work: The Girl in the Glass is a good place to start on what might lead you to your newest favorite author.