I love it when art, literature and life intersect within a novel. And when books or reading is directly involved I'm particularly pleased. Considering the amount of book browsing I do, I'm usually at least peripherally aware when a new book along the lines of Katie Ward's Girl Reading comes along, but somehow it escaped my attention until Buried in Print and I were chatting and it came up in conversation. There was nothing for it but to read it together we decided, something we had done with success last year (though I didn't get around to writing about that book until early this year).
To call Girl Reading a "novel" might be a misnomer, though Ward herself considers it a single piece of work made up of seven different components. What Ward does, and both Buried in Print and I thought she did it well, is to explore similar themes based on seven different images of a girl/woman reading through the passage of time beginning in 1333 and ending in 2060. The images--paintings, photographs, digital images--were all different and while each piece explored issues and problems particular to those eras it was amazing how there was so much continuity from one period to the next despite the passage of time. The problems and challenges the characters experienced were often related and overlapped. I guess some things don't change, they just take on a slightly different hue over time.
Each of the seven chapters can be read as a single story, which at first seems unrelated to the next (at least superficially) until you get to the end of the book and then Ward ties things together, whipping images and experiences into place as one single whole and bringing the stories full circle. The stories are best read in order and as each is around fifty pages or so, Ward has time and space to create individual little worlds that are easy to get caught up in. The inspiration for these stories come from actual paintings and images, more than the seven she writes about in Girl Reading, and if you're curious you can see some of them here.
Since Ward really does create separate little worlds within each story (or "component"), it's a little hard to talk about them all in any detail, and that would ruin some of the fun for you if you plan on picking this book up. But very briefly . . . In "Simone Martini: Annunciation, 1333" a young Sienese girl, shy and pious, is asked to be the model for a Renaissance painter for what will be a provocative religious painting. "Pieter Janssens Elinga: Woman Reading, 1668" is reminiscent of Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring with its Dutch setting. And like the Chevalier novel, the model (or inspiration for the painter) is the housemaid who causes unintended marital strife and jealousy. There's a twist to "Angelica Kauffman: Portrait of a Lady, 1775" that I wasn't expecting. A painter is urged to complete a work that was begun for a wealthy woman of her lover. The separation of the two causing the abandoned woman much pain and grief.
The next two stories are my favorites of the bunch. In "Featherstone of Piccadilly: Carte de Visite, 1864" the new art of photography is explored. Two sisters, twins long separated by distance and attitude, have finally been reunited. As children they shared the gift of sight and an ability to communicate with the dead. As adults one has turned her back on her talent and the other has embraced it. It's a sad yet in some ways playful story, particularly when the sister who has had to take over her deceased husband's photography business must take a postmortem photo of a young child--with interesting results.
I could have read an entire book created around the setting and characters in "Unknown: For Pleasure, 1916". A country house setting during WWI and an eccentric woman researching and writing a book are two of the elements that make up this wonderful story. Told from the perspective of a young girl visiting her aunt and watching and misinterpreting the actions of the adults brings to mind Ian McEwan's Atonement (and I loved that story, too), though Ward gives the story her own slant. For me it was a perfectly paced story with interesting and witty characters and an unexpected ending.
"Immaterialism: Reader in a Shoreditch Bar, 2008" brings the reader into the new century and with it, different mediums of expression. This time an independent woman who works for a British MP is driven to succeed and must face the results and disappointments of her ambitions. The last story "Sincerity Yabuki: Sibil, 2060" ties everything together. It's a world both the same and very different, the product of our desires, that shows us we should be careful for what we wish for.
There were some things I found interesting about the stories, and in some cases the things were a little surprising. Since the stories center on the making of an image of a girl/woman reading, there is a definite feminist slant to the stories. Ward writes about love and affection, death, spirituality, relationships with men and with other women and with families, as well as women's roles in society and the doorway to her exploration of these themes is through a painting (or photograph). Women are the subjects of these works of art, but like so often in life they are also an object. A lot happens to the characters off stage. But there is much more to their lives than meets the eye or that the reader is always privy to. There are things that happen to the characters that the reader never sees, and that often helps create the twist to the story. Most surprising to me was that it is not always the act of painting/photographing the subject, the reading woman, that is always the central focus of the story. That was almost an afterthought at times. It seemed an interesting way to approach a story with this sort of set up and I liked it.
I very much enjoyed Girl Reading, but I can see how there might be things about the book that might not appeal to all readers. The stories are ultimately interrelated, but each can be read and appreciated on its own. And as each is its own complete world, it is easy to get wrapped up in the characters' lives--only to have them come to an abrupt end. On some occasions I was happy to move on to the next and in others I would have liked to linger. It took me several stories to catch on that Ward writes in present tense which some might find jarring, though I find it happening frequently in novels lately. Although I am probably not as careful a reader as I could be to miss such stylistic devices, I think it also says something about the storyteller that I was focused on what was happening more than the techniques she used in forming her stories.
And, of course, much of the pleasure in reading this was being able to talk about it with another like-minded reader. There are always so many different ways to see a story, and getting someone else's perspective inevitably sheds more light things. Thanks to Buried in Print for suggesting it, and please do go read her thoughts on it here.