I am always excited to discover a book that combines my two passions – books and art – and Girl Reading does so exceedingly well. I have been getting into reading short stories more of late, and this is a wonderful collection.
Virago Press (2011, this edition 2012)
Short stories – historical and contemporary fiction
This is an intriguing book, it has seven chapters or stories each focusing on an image of a girl or woman reading. I have also seen it described as a novel, but while it does come together at the end, it reads more like a collection of short stories to me. There is a great range in place and time – from early Renaissance Sienna to Victorian England to a futuristic virtual world. Each story is a world of its own, and completely involving at that. I loved how the final story linked the others together, but I also feel each story/chapter was very strong on its own.
Ward creates memorable and compelling characters – the twins who had a childhood career as mediums in the Victorian story are particularly striking, as is her innocent young artist in the Bloomsbury group-esque gathering at Arnault House, and her disillusioned political assistant having a drink in a London bar in the recent past.
I was resilient when I was younger. Headstrong. No one could talk me out of anything or stop me doing something I wanted to do. Recently I have begun to have doubts. Recently I’ve realised that version of myself has gone away.
There is a range of art forms too, from an altarpiece to a sketch to a photo posted on Flickr. The descriptions of the processes of studio photography in Victorian England were very interesting, but doesn’t take away from the story. There is a note at the end of the book (and links on Ward’s website) relating to the artworks that inspired the various stories. However, they work with or without this reference point. Art is central to each narrative, but so is identity, the sitter’s appearance and their inner life.
This is a book I have been thinking about since I finished reading it. The short story is a real art, and Ward succeeded in creating characters who are nuanced and complex, and who seem to live beyond the short page count of their narratives. A book I would recommend to readers with an interest in art, or with an interested in varied and absorbing narratives about women throughout history.