British writer Katie Ward's first book takes its inspiration from a handful of paintings, drawings and photographs. Though labeled a novel, Girl Reading is more an intricately woven collection of stories, each centered on an image of a woman holding a book, the first set in the 14th century, the last in the future.
A young girl in 1333, for instance, is pulled from a convent to pose for Simone Martini's Annunciation. Prey to a persuasive suitor, she becomes pregnant. In a contemporary story, a female Parliament staffer worries that marrying the wrong man may hamper her aspirations to become a member of parliament. She confesses this at a bar to an amateur photographer who posts her picture on Flickr. Yet these quick plot summaries belie the complexity of the worlds that Ward creates.
Unknown — For Pleasure, 1916 is one of the strongest pieces in this collection. A young woman named Gwen on the cusp of adulthood declares herself in love with a painter 10 years her senior and then watches the sexual intrigue of the adults around her. Gwen ends up protecting these adults from one another. Jumping into a pond, she reflects on how complex adult experience has revealed itself to be: "There is a world under here, and it is completely different from how she dreamed it."
The final piece, Sincerity Yabuki — Sibil, 2060, plays most directly with the idea of reading and is, indeed, a story about these stories. In this future, art is no longer available to the public, and people often experience friends and places in virtual reality. When a woman named Sincerity discovers an online presence (the ghostly Sibil) that allows people to imagine lives behind six images — the images in Girl Reading — the thinness of modern experience is made clear; the story questions the value of contemporary online worlds, while depicting reading and art as akin to life.
Girl Reading is not perfect, but this evocative, substantial book, in the tradition of A.S. Byatt, deserves a close reading.