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 staffer in Parliament worries that her aspirations to become an MP may be hampered by marriage to the wrong man. She confesses this concern 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. Each is part of the tapestry of its time, e.g., the politics of the 14th-century church, the Dutch art world, Westminster.
“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, and at the same time declaring how she will act in love. 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. A woman named Sincerity gives her daughter a “sim-kitty” and appears to her mainly as an avatar while she works in another country. When Sincerity discovers an online presence (the ghostly Sibil) that allows people to imagine lives behind six images of women reading — 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. One story’s conclusion, in which a deceased lover is envisioned advising her mate to live again, disappoints slightly, though it is the only one to do so. This evocative, substantial book, in the tradition of A.S. Byatt, deserves a close reading.
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Burns is editor of “Off the Page: Writers Talk About Beginnings, Endings, and Everything in Between” and teaches at the University of Winchester in England.
By Katie Ward
Scribner. 352 pp. $26