Having seen a lot of chat about this book through various online sources – and read some interesting reviews, I managed to catch the last twenty minutes of The TV book club programme which featured an item about this novel. Everyone was very enthusiastic about it and so I bought the book from Amazon that same evening. I have to say however that I don’t like the cover art of this latest edition – I have seen the art of the earlier edition and like it much more – I know that doesn’t or shouldn’t add or detract anything from the book – but it does have an effect. A friend of mine at work who has already read and enjoyed the novel ‘Girl reading’ told me how she managed to source an American hardback edition of the book through Abebooks and I believe it featured some of the art work that inspired the novel – I had immediate book envy.
All of that is an aside – now about the book.
Girl Reading is told in seven stories – each story is based around artwork which features girls or women reading. Thus each chapter is the story behind the art. These are fictional tales of course – Katie Ward has picked some wonderful images on which to base her novel, images which inspired her beautiful stories. I have seen a number of reviews which seem to debate whether this is in fact a collection of short stories rather than a novel, the final story/chapter however links the seemingly unconnected stories together in an extraordinary and unexpected way. Whether or not the book is a novel or short stories – for me is actually unimportant – the writing is lovely, the stories memorable and wholly satisfying.
In the first story set in 1333 – Laura a young orphan is persuaded to pose for a Renaissance painter. She is befriended by the artist’s wife, and we learn something of Laura’s life – and her hopes for the future. In 1668 Amsterdam a deaf mute servant girl is the inspiration for a painting as she snatches a moment to look through a book of her mistresses. In 1775 a female portrait painter is summoned to finish a picture by a grief stricken countess. 1864 and a Victorian photography studio is at the heart of the story, adult twin sisters and spiritualism make for an unusual tale. 1916 – At the country house of an academic, a young artist and conscientious objector is the subject of a young girls day dreams. 2008 in a Shoreditch bar a young woman is photographed reading and the picture posted on flickr. In the not too distant future of 2060 – these stories are brought together in a not improbable futuristic vision.
The writing is gorgeous, the style of each narrative beautifully constructed to suit the period in which the story is set. Each chapter manages to be a whole story – the worlds and characters portrayed are distinct and complete. My favourite stories – although I liked them all a great deal – were the first three. If there was one story which grabbed me less it was the one from 2008. The futuristic story at the end is extremely clever and brings all the stories together.