GIRL READING, Katie Ward. Virago Press, Little, Brown Book Group,100 Victoria Embankment, London EC4Y 0DY,United Kingdom. 2011, 342 pages, £7.99 paper, http://www.virago.co.uk;
Scribner, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020, 2012, 352 pages, cloth,www.books.simonandschuster.com.
There’s something about stumbling upon a girl reading, something mildly subversive about the image, her head bent low over the pages of an opened book. The girl herself, of course, is not open. Her eyes are closed off, hooded, shielded from view. Her vision is turned inwards, her being inaccessible to any who look upon her.
This debut work, Girl Reading by English author Katie Ward, renders a series of evocative narratives, seven variations upon a theme of a girl reading, each linked, some more tenuously than others, so that while this book may at first glance appear to be a collection of short stories, it is, in fact, a novel of sorts.–unlike any novel I have read before.
While it is possible to read each ”chapter” as a separate tale, much would be lost in taking such an approach, for these stories build one upon the other. Thus we notice that Pieter Janssens Elinga’s portrait, ”Woman Reading”–the subject of the second tale–is based upon his studies of Simone Martini’s altar centrepiece ”Annunciation”, the theme of the first story. Further on, Angelica Kauffman makes a sketch of a composition of a maid alone in a room with her back to the viewer. We discover, in time, that she is drawing Janssens Elinga’s painting. And so the links remain chained, unbroken.
The novel too shifts from one historical era to another, the author skillfully penning each section in a different voice, creating scenes and landscapes so disparate as to seem written by different authors. Except for one noticeable idiosyncratic feature–her love of writing in tripartite mode. These function as her leit-motif, her trademark even. Ward runs her images, verbs, adjectives together, punctuation-less, word paintings that roll off the tongue, flowing like water washing everything clean–rendering all pristine, bright, clear. Thus she entices our literary senses, delighting us with word spills as captivating as sheet ice as new paper as porcelain; floating diving soaring; over wilderness over cliffs over the sea.
Within each tale itself, much is left unsaid: silences, ellipses, gaps, hanging like misty backgrounds, hazy and out of focus, redolent of the scene that serves as the epicentre of the narrative, like the ring setting for a beautiful multifaceted diamond.
Ward writes in simple, direct, spare sentences whose lyricism dances around the edges of her half-formed, unfinished sentences. Sense and meaning are expressed more through suggestion than direct, declarative statement. Her beautiful prose is reminiscent of poets who turn their hand to fiction, like the Canadian poet Anne Michaels. Ward shares Michaels’ love of a certain kind of prose, beautiful in its utter, stark simplicity. Only a poet can write like this, slipping between the cracks, free-falling to the deep, dark horrifying beauty of it all.
Word pictures are mostly left as sketches, albeit vignettes painted in glorious colors against a background, hazy, uncertain, unclear. The settings of her scenes are as much a part of the story as any of the characters, so skillfully drawn that it is impossible for us to imagine the characters anywhere else but placed firmly within its frame.
Each tale brings the reader face-to-face with some horrifyingly familiar aspect of reality, forcing the reader to recognize something that we would rather leave undisturbed–no need to waken the sleeping dogs, we are doing just fine as we are, thank you very much. But Ward disagrees. And this is what her novel is really about. Each portrait, each image, each story is an attempt by the author to unsettle the reader, to force us to look a little deeper, delve a little further into the dark continent of the subconscious.
Though the author deprives her readers of a complete resolution to all the uncertainties suggested, rather than leave the reader dissatisfied and somehow cheated, the effect is to enhance the ever present aura of ambiguity and doubt, generating a perception of enigmatic and evocative mystery. Ward’s writing is somewhat experimental. We watch while she plays with forms, adapting her approach in subtle ways to render each tale in a unique way. Her writer’s voice never repeats itself, never sounds quite the same as before. The timbre of her tones matches exactly the era it depicts, the landscape in which it is set.
The final tale is the story that gathers all the threads together, presenting them as a unified whole, encapsulating them in a philosophy of aesthetics about the beauty of humankind’s imperfect art. It is almost as if the author herself speaks through the voice of Sincerity, her protagonist. Here Ward fleshes out the theme of her novel, unveils it, uncovers it, and makes it clear so that if we have so far failed to understand, then through Sincerity, she will help us see:
Let’s say I did it for beauty. I did it because we humans intuit that beautiful objects can tell stories. We believe they have power. It is why we cherish things, because of the way they move us. They have voices, and would speak to us. They are imprinted with the past.
Ward’s debut is a thing of beauty with the power to speak to us. She ends her absorbing novel with an ode to love, Without you, life is entirely possible but hateful. The same could be said of beauty, and art, and words. And girls reading.
Edith O Nuallain
[First published in Calyx, A Journal of Art and Literature by Women, Summer 2013, Vol 27:3 ]