Girl Reading by Katie Ward

Virago, 2012, 342 p

A young girl brought up in a 14th century foundling hospital in Siena is asked to be the model for the Virgin Mary in a painting of the Annunciation. A mute Dutch serving maid accidentally inspires her master to paint her in the act of reading. The completion of a portrait of her dead lesbian lover reconciles a reclusive countess to her loss. One of a pair of identical twin women, a medium, comes to the other, a photographer’s widow now running the business, for a set of cartes de visite. A fifteen year old girl who fancies she is in love with an unmarried artist ten years her senior tries to impress him by painting a picture of her hostess. An MP’s assistant whose personal life has just become uncertain allows her photograph to be taken in a wine bar. A career woman in 2060 misses her family.

Apart from being within the covers of the one book what do all these seven different novella length stories whose settings are spread in time over 600 years have in common? This is presented as a novel so we are presumably being invited to make connections in a way that a book set out as a story collection would not invite. Yet, stylistically, thematically and in plot terms, there is no overt connection between them – except that they all feature images of female literacy. The potted précis given above are, by the way, the least of what each novella conveys.

Each is a slice of life, fully imagined. Every character in them is sympathetically portrayed, feels real. Ward’s control is impressive, she rarely puts a word wrong. (I did wonder however if the phrase “the exception that proves the rule” was really in use in 14th century Italy.)

The last – which was the least convincing in its setting (being a reader of SF I would say that) – tries to force the issue as it features a device known as Sibil (Sensory Immersion Bioscript Interface Locus) which can make its users feel the stories behind the genesis of six images. Those six happen to be the ones we have just read about.

There are, of course, similarities here not only to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas in that within the book there is more than one tale with settings in eras spread from the past to the future but also, in its referencing of paintings, to John Banville’s Athena.

Ward’s seven tales have a stylistic quirk in that all of the dialogue is rendered in plain text, not in quotation marks, and is only distinguishable from its surroundings by context and tone. This could be a disaster in the wrong hands – even when conventionally rendered, back and forth dialogue can be tricky for some authors to set down clearly enough – but is never a problem here. Another commonality is that the meat of a tale is sometimes prefaced by an earlier incident in its subjects’ lives.

There could, of course, have been a practical reason for the book’s unusual structure. The conventional wisdom is that short story collections don’t sell. Well if you dress them up as a single novel that problem evaporates.

Such a cynical view would be less than kind. Girl Reading is excellent stuff. It serves as a warning “hard formats are the only ones that survive in the long run,” and a reminder of the importance of physical objects, especially the book. Well, all bibliophiles will agree to that.

Addendum:- A note on the paintings which inspired Ward is here along with links to the images.

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  1. Ian Sales

    I must admit, I thought the book very impressive too.

  2. jackdeighton

    It was largely your comments on this, Ian, which inclined me to read it.

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