Review: Girl Reading- Katie Ward
Girl Reading by Katie Ward is one of those novels that you either like or you don’t. After reading a lot of mixed reviews I was intrigued and bought it immediately, and while I didn’t absolutely love it, it is creative, different and made for a very enjoyable read.
The novel consists of seven short stories that span seven different decades. Each story involves a picture of the ‘literate female’- a woman reading- and the pictures they are based on are real, which only makes the novel more appealing. The first story is about Laura, an orphan who lives in a convent in 14th century Siena, sent to model for the artist Simone Martini. This is my favourite story within the novel; the setting and the prose describing the cathedral is wonderfully evocative. Another story focuses on Pieter Janssens Elinga’s famous painting, ‘Woman Reading’ in 1668. A maid working in the household of a wealthy family tries to escape into another world by reading one of her mistress’ books. She is painted by the father of the household who desperately desires her. One of the most interesting stories actually takes place in the future, where original artwork no longer exists and people use computerised spectacles so that they do not see the world as it really is.
Taking the massive journey from the 14th century to the year 2060, you would think that reading a collection of short stories in this time span would be jarring, like getting thrown from one story and into another. But Ward makes the transition from story to story very smoothly, despite contrasting characters, locations and time periods, and this is one of the reasons that makes Girl Reading so enjoyable. The author’s ability to render her stories with vagueness and uncertainty is also something that she achieves very well; at the end of Laura’s story for example she confesses a problem that is tearing her apart, and how she is unable to deal with it. The story is left unresolved, and the reader can only guess at Laura’s fate. There is also some element of mystery surrounding the story of the Countess who grieves for her dead lesbian lover, Frances. Is Frances actually dead? Does she visit the countess in spiritual form, or is it simply her imagination?
Girl Reading immerses itself in art and the depiction of art, and the novel is like a piece of art itself. Ward is creative with the form of the novel and is minimalistic with her punctuation and detail. All the images within the selection of short stories intricately come together to create one whole, and that is, I think, to celebrate women reading over the centuries. There is, of course the obvious questions that arise when looking at a picture of a woman reading, and the author highlights these herself:
‘Who was this person? Why was she in the bar? Where was this location? What turn of events brought her there? How did she know the photographer? Were they strangers, or were they intimate?’
In each image that Ward describes, all of these women are reading, and this is captured by painting or photograph. However the power of a woman reading is that no one knows what she is thinking, and not even the artist or photographer can capture or reveal what her thoughts are. The final chapter that is set in 2060 also makes it clear that although technology progresses and we are rushed along with it, there will always be a place for books and reading in the world,
‘She has discovered Cloud lying on her front on a blanket on the grass, leaning over her open textbook…she has crossed her feet in the air behind her. Tidy, painted toenails. She is wearing one of her flimsy vests, a strap lifting though not fallen from her shoulders. Engrossed.’
Well, that is my understanding of the novel anyway. Girl Reading can be a little bit difficult to grasp at certain points and the overall message itself may be confusing, however I really enjoyed Ward’s debut novel. It is inventive and offers the reader a fresh and beautiful take on the power of women reading, and I cannot wait to see what she will write next.
Do I recommend you to read it? Yes, but do not expect one whole novel-if you don’t like art or the short story form then maybe give this one a miss!
Genre: sci-fi/ short story / historical