16.3.12

'Girl Reading' by Katie Ward

'So Maria must go to the library. She balances on the step, stretches to her full height to reach the shelves, turns books over, sorts them into piles and replaces them. New books and old books, books she has never seen before. Flicks and fans through pages. What would Angelica want to hear? What is Maria prepared to read?'

'Girl Reading' by Katie Ward is another book from the pile very kindly sent to me by the More4 TV Book Club, but isn't one that requires a video review (for my attempt at that see here).

The basic structure of this story is that it is not one story at all, but rather 7 short stories, linked by the common theme of featuring a girl reading. The quote above is from the third story, 'Angelica Kauffman, 'Portrait of a Lady, 1775'; the other six feature a hospital orphan in 1333 Siena, a servant girl in the house of a 17th century Dutch painter, a spiritualist and her twin in Victorian London, a female academic, her sister and the man who comes between them in 1916 Arnault, an MP's researcher in 2008 Shoreditch and, finally, a virtual lady programme in 2060. The books are obvious in some, less obvious in others.

My thoughts are kind of mixed on this one. I generally liked the more modern sections better than the older ones, particularly the first two, as, to be honest, they felt a bit imitated and like I'd read them before. The Dutch painter section is so similar to Tracy Chevalier's  'Girl With a Pearl Earring' that I'm surprised Ward even attempted it, or that her agent/editor didn't pass comment. The spiritualist story had a slight feeling of 'The Night Circus', also, which was a shame as it was well-written and engaging; unfortunately, the deja vu element alienated me fairly early on.

I found the story set in Shoreditch the most engaging, as I felt it was the most fully realised and the easiest to relate to - everyone around me is also having babies - and I found the last section interesting once I got into it, particularly in its comments on virtual existence and the programmed replicas of great art and literature being less permanent than the physical forms, which is a big old' no to ebook philosophy if ever I heard one.

I am still a bit ambivalent about the lack of speech marks -  the text is wholly embedded, with no elements to distinguish it - which speaks highly of Katie Ward's writing that she pulled that off, but at times I was a little confused by it and it required more effort than normal to keep track of who was talking. Another TV Book Club book I read recently - 'The Rules of Civility' - also had an unusual speech mark tick, using a dash at the beginning of a line of dialogue, although also dropping it down to a new line in the conventional fashion made that much less of a change. Is this something people are doing now? Meh.

Overall, it was a nice read, but I feel it could have been elevated into something greater by having a more compelling and a clearer theme - all I can guess at it would be 'the timelessness of women reading', or the 'timelessness of women' full stop. Or something to do with the eternal triumvirate relationship between subject-artist-viewer. I'm not sure. The thing is though, if themes are that timeless, doesn't that make them really rather commonplace, and by extension, slightly irrelevant? This book has nothing new to add; all that I felt was possible, even at its highest reaches, was to go 'huh, yeah, the artistic relationship requires three, and painters have always liked to paint/photograph pretty women.'


I did debate whether or not to go into this, in view of the VIDA survey and all the rest of it, but the thought that first came to mind as I'm finished it was, when we live in such tumultuous times though, couldn't she come up with something a bit more ground-breaking to say about the world? The fact is, it's lightweight, and overly so, and I'm irritated by this as I don't think it necessarily had to be. Surely she has something worth saying to the world? Talking about old images is, I'm sure, not the limit of her reach.

'Girl Reading' is a nice book, and Katie Ward is a good writer, and I'll admit that I do feel a bit bad picking a few small holes in what is a debut novel by a talented novelist. With a more explicit theme and a bit more to say for itself though, it might not have been something I might have been moved by, rather than just feeling it was something I'd read (sometimes in quite specific instances) many times before.


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