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Part fable, part picaresque novella, The Girl With the Golden Shoes is about a Cinderella who isn’t white and who definitely doesn’t have a fairy godmother. Instead she has brains, nerve, a little luck, and a toughness that enables her to take lots of life’s punches. Estrella, the dirt-poor daughter of a dead prostitute, lives with her grandmother in a ramshackle hut on the beach of an imaginary Caribbean island. Expelled from her indigent hamlet at age 14 for teaching herself to read—something the villagers regard as bad luck—Estrella wanders, gets robbed, endures the jeering bombinations of the locals, fights to recover her possessions, and is tricked into sleeping with a rustic seducer. She finally makes it to town to look for work, barefoot and ragged and sleeping on the stone steps of the courthouse. Estrella is vividly drawn: She has the willfulness of Thackeray’s Becky Sharp, though without her edgy wickedness, and the innocence of a Balzac heroine, battered by the callous and casual malice of the world. But the similarities to the 19th-century European novel end there—this is a spare, lyrical book. At the story’s center is Estrella’s enchantment with language. Early on, she observes a wealthy woman exchanging notes with a man; what the woman reads startlingly enlivens her face, and for Estrella, this transformation discloses the magic of the written word. She, too, must learn to read. Channer also addresses matters of language with his style: Much of the book is written in an island patois that’s a pleasure to read simply for its sound as well as for the forthrightness it imparts to Estrella’s character. The book’s language is as much a character as anyone else, whether it’s describing honest Estrella or her deceitful and unctuous seducer. Channer addresses matters of class, gender, and race without cant, though he’ll occasionally seize the megaphone of the omniscient narrator and make proclamations like, “He was an experienced seducer.” It’s a jarring conceit, but even those who regard such authorial bulletins as lapses will still admire Channer’s narrative flexibility and his portrait of a gritty ingénue.
Channer discusses and signs copies of his work at 7 p.m., Thursday, May 10, at Vertigo Books, 7346 Baltimore Ave., College Park. Free. (301) 779-9300.