I forget where I saw mention of Katie Ward’s Girl Reading – I’ve a feeling it was on one of David Hebblethwaite‘s lists of novels by non-genre imprints that might eligible for the 2011 Clark Award. The blurb sounded interesting, so I stuck it on my list of books to keep an eye open for… And a few months ago, I saw it at my mother’s so I borrowed it. (She doesn’t remember the book, and certainly hasn’t read it, so one of my sisters may have left it there.)
Girl Reading is not one of those novels which defy summary, but a description of its plot – or plots – does not really give the true flavour of the book. It is constructed from seven sections, set in, respectively, Siena in 1333, Amsterdam in 1668, an English country house in 1775, London in 1864, another English country house in 1916, London in 2008, and an unnamed European city in 2060. The sections are not linked, except by mention of the previous section’s subject – ie, a picture of a girl reading. (The exact pictures which inspired the novel are given in ‘A Note’ at the end of the book; some are reproduced in this post).
Comparisons with Cloud Atlas are inevitable, and while Ward’s control of voice may not be as accomplished as David Mitchell’s, Girl Reading trumps Cloud Atlas because it relies less on hoary clichés for its plot and because its structure makes sense within the context of the story. It’s there in the final section, ‘Sincerity Yabuki – Sibil, 2060’:
“Sibil makes you experience, in mesh, real or fictionalised aspects of what is already there embedded within a real-world object. The artwork is the starting point; from that, it weaves an extended portrait of sorts, showing us this art piece in a new way.” (p 302)
Isn’t that we all we do? When we see the cover-art of a novel, we imagine the story it represents. When we witness an event in real life, we try to make a story of it as if that somehow makes it more understandable, helps makes sense of the narratives of our own lives. For a fixed number of objects – paintings and photographs – Girl Reading not only makes this process overt, it presents the results of the process for us.
It’s a science-fictional conceit – so, yes, the book was perhaps suitable for consideration for the Clarke Award – but because the narrative works forward from the past to the future, it’s unlikely Girl Reading will ever be read as science fiction. True, it doesn’t reveal its genre underpinnings until that final section, and the links between the sections are subtle, but that last section does make sense of it all. It often seems that literary fiction novels lack a final payoff – or rather, it sometimes feels as though much of the story didn’t actually contribute toward the ending. Not a twist ending, not something that makes you drastically reconsider all that has gone before – although the ending of Girl Reading does do something like that. But when it does happen, it’s good. Of course, that’s not to say it’s necessary – I can think of several such novels where much of the book’s appeal lies in the journey toward the ending.
Girl Reading is written throughout in the present tense, without the use of speech marks for dialogue. Obviously, this is a style which appeals to me, but Ward’s prose is also good. It is, perhaps, a little precious in places, but not so much it obstructs the narrative or draws attention to itself. She has a fine eye for what gives surroundings character, and though the language is not particularly complex she succeeds in evoking sense of place:
Haunted by sadness. It is a grand building, but Angelica has been in grander, and it is the absence of society, of comings and goings, that makes it feel enormous like a cavern, serious like a church. (p 109)
The female subjects of each section are also well-drawn, interesting characters – the young woman of fourteenth-century Siena, the deaf-mute Dutch maid, even the ambitious but conflicted young Parliamentary assistant in 2008. Their concerns are personal – yes, relationships – but they work in context. Above all, the historical detail is convincing, and the characters fit their historical milieu. That’s a difficult trick to pull off for a story set in one historical period, and harder still to do for multiple periods.
There have been sadly few books I’ve read this year which I’ve classified as “impressive”, that I finished knowing I had just read something special. Girl Reading was one of them. On the strength of it, I’ll be keeping an eye open for future books by Katie Ward. And I very much suspect her debut novel will be appearing in my top five at the end of the year.