I bought this book on impulse to celebrate having got myself a new job. I’ve had way more time than usual to read in the past few weeks as it’s been holiday time and I no longer have to spend every waking minute applying for jobs – hence the 6 reviews already this month. Anyway … I feel like I’m getting side tracked. Back to the book …
This is Katie Ward’s first novel and I was still thinking about it three days after I had finished it, so I think it’s fair to say that she’s done a decent job. Strictly speaking, it doesn’t seem to be a novel. There are seven disconnected stories, but they are linked together in the final chapter which is set in the future … still I have a wee suspicion that somebody’s publisher very much wanted to push it as a novel rather than a collection of short stories which is after all the Cinderella of the publishing world. All of the stories concern pictures of women reading or the ‘literate female’ as they are described in the final chapter.
In many ways, this felt like more of a piece of art than a novel – and I don’t have a particularly good track record for understanding art – I’m a word girl. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy looking, the Louvre is one of my favourite places in the world and I collect postcards because I like the pictures but I’m not so good at the deciphering What It All Means. You can see that Ward is trying to be clever in this novel, she doesn’t use any speech marks which is often confusing although I got over it very quickly. It’s like she’s trying to be minimalistic – sparing with the details of her characters, sparing with her punctuation. It’s literary modern art.
I did enjoy the stories individually though, particularly when I realised that the images being discussed are real. In the 14th century, Simone Martini really did paint a picture of the Annunciation for Siena Cathedral and Pieter Janssens’ Woman Reading is another famous painting. The others tended to be more obscure, including one picture from Flickr of a girl reading Never Let Me Go in Shoreditch, 2008. I could see that there were themes which bound them together, the relentless march of technology which only increases the distance between us all. Indeed, the most obvious over-riding theme of simple wonder about what people in pictures are thinking is something I’ve thought about myself.
The first story concerns Laura, an orphaned novice sent by the convent to model for Simone Martini. Laura is the innocent in the middle of political intrigue concerning the new cathedral and it is a beautifully written setting but it ends surprisingly with Laura tearfully confessing to Martini’s much younger (and barren) wife that she is pregnant. The story ends unresolved as Ward notes ‘Many details go unrecorded’. Shiver. We then move to the 17th century where Pieter Janssen is drawing pictures of Esther his deaf maidservant without her knowledge as she snatches a few minutes to herself to read a book of legends. Shiver again. That was another one which again ended abruptly as it appeared that Esther had possibly found an avenue for escape.
The next story moved to a more elegiac theme as an ageing countess Maria mourns her dead lover Frances and their mutual friend Angelica Kauffman agrees to finish the dead woman’s portrait. Although memory and the internal world are themes throughout, it is from here onwards that the spirit gains greater prominence, linking nicely to the next one set in Victorian London where a woman is photographed holding a book (Mrs Beeton) by ‘Featherstone’s of London’. That one was my favourite, the story of two twin sisters, one a photographer and the other a spiritualist, separated for decades and finally reunited. One image really stuck out to me – after seeing her sister, the photographer was taking a picture of little Edna who was carried in to the studio by her father and then carried back out again. Later, Rose is developing the plate and exactly what she fears has indeed happened – Edna’s been a naughty girl and Rose will need a pencil to block out where Edna’s spirit is peeking out from the curtains. Post-mori photographs give me the creeps majorly although I know they were fashionable in Victorian England.
There’s an odd Atonement-esque episode after this one set in WW1 where a 15 year-old girl doesn’t quite understand what’s going on with her host and the men who are staying. Then suddenly it’s 2008 and Jeanine Okoro is a black Tory living in Shoreditch and thinking she may be in the wrong job and in the wrong relationship. Interestingly, she’s reading Never Let Me Go which regular readers may remember as being about cloning and man’s inhumanity to man. This takes us to 2060 where Sincerity Yabuki has created Sibil, a machine/being that can allow people to experience what was in the minds of people in paintings. But not just any paintings – just the ones that we’ve heard the stories about. Of course, there’s no positive evidence that this is definitely what they were feeling, casting suspicion on the earlier parts of the narrative.
The world of the last chapter is one where people exist ‘in mesh’ which means that they keep computerised spectacles on so they don’t see the world the way it really is. Sincerity’s daughter takes her ‘iSpecs’ on and off again to look at a man who has muscles if she looks at him with her iSpecs and is just very fat if she looks at him with them off. Gradually, the family realise the emptiness of the mesh world and they cast it off for real life, almost as if prompted by Sibil who confuses even Sincerity – also, I did think that calling a character who is looking for greater ‘Sincerity’ was a wee bit obvious – but again, it’s art, it’s not a regular novel.
The image on the cover is I think Sibil – she can only decipher images of ‘the literate female’ – what are they thinking? I liked the way that Ward emphasised the power of the Woman Reading. In these images, the woman has her own interior life which nobody, not even the artist, can penetrate. Only the woman can know what she is thinking. Why is it though that the male image does not have the same power? Maybe because women have had to strive to be educated, it is not something that was assumed, not for centuries anyway. Even the 2008 Jeanine Okoro was struggling with issues that only really affect women. This is a novel which celebrates the mystery of the feminine – not something that gets put out often in mainstream fiction.
I think another important point here was what happens when our image is recorded? Does it change us? Preserve us? In catching a moment in time, does this mean that the picture has caught a part of us ourselves? In that respect, this is something that I found interesting – if you look at an early photograph, you know that everybody in it is not dead, even the baby in its mother’s arms has long ago grown old and died. In my home, I have a photograph of my great-grandparents’ wedding. When I look at it, I have no idea what was in their minds that day although I know that my great-grandmother had originally wanted to marry someone else. There is no way of knowing if they were happy, sad or indifferent. Yet it is tempting to speculate. Sorry … random musings over.
I think that this was a book that celebrated real life Reading – in the final chapter the characters realise that although they see mesh copies of paintings, they are not the same as the real thing being both less permanent and you know – not real. Sincerity feels irate at the idea that her creation ‘Sibil’ will need to be ‘upgraded’ to ‘Sibil 2.0’ because this is what happens to all technology, it must be improved. A lot of my friends own Kindles which I am being a stubborn Luddite about because I Like Books and I Like Reading Books – I know it’s more transportable but I’ve grown used to always having 2 books in my handbag (one that I’m reading and the other one spare in case I finish the first one during the day). The final paragraph of the novel sees Sincerity watching as her daughter reads a Real Book, totally engrossed and we know that Reading Will Survive.
If we accept that as this book’s mission statement – what’s not to like?
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Girl Reading by Katie Ward
Published by Simon and Schuster on February 7th 2012
Genres: Art, History, General, Fiction, Literary
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