Girl Reading by Katie Ward

11th Apr 2011


When we visited Virago’s offices in early March, Girl Reading was one of the books they were all too eager to tell us about. The début novel by Katie Ward, Girl Reading isn’t out until early May, but it’s already got the blogosphere buzzing.

A series of seven chronological episodes that take us from medieval Siena through 1600s Amsterdam to present-day Shoreditch and beyond, each one imagines the narrative context to seven real-life portraits of women reading.

From the very first pages, telling the tale of on an orphan posing for a Renaissance artist painting the Annunciation on an altar in 1333, Girl Reading is rich and immersive, with painstaking attention to detail, pitch-perfect dialogue and description, and vivid, lyrical language:

“[The water] is deep and has drunk centuries of rain. Its sounds… are the hum of damselflies and the plop of invisible fish kicking the surface with their tails. Leaves answer with hushed applause.”

The readers’ voyeuristic adventures continue with a Victorian medium in her twin sister’s photography studio, a country summerhouse during WW1, and a woman mourning her lost love by commissioning a portrait from a celebrated artist (this chapter, based on Angelica Kauffmann’s 1775 Portrait of a Lady, was by far and away my favourite).

Overall, Girl Reading is innovative and enchanting; a unique and compelling concept that skilfully imagines and unravels the context of these untold stories. But the penultimate instalment, centring around an encounter in a Shoreditch bar in 2008, was the least successful.

With designer brand names used as clumsy, crass shorthand to signify life on the luxe side, the protagonist soon became irritating and unlikeable. Maybe because it’s set so close to the present day, this chapter doesn’t the same luminous magic as the others, transporting the reader to a long-gone time and place. Instead it came across as trivial and self-aggrandising.

The last episode, set in 2060, reminded me of Jeff Noon with its techno-inventions, sim-kitties, artificial intelligence and questions about the impermanence of art.

Although at times it threatened to tie all the previous threads together in an obvious and uncomfortable knot, I was eventually won over, and will be looking forward to seeing what Katie Ward does next.

Published by Virago on May 5th, you can pre-order it from Amazon in hardback for £9.89, or in paperback for £7.19.

If you can’t wait until then, we’ve got a copy to give away, generously provided by Virago. Want to win? Just tell us so in the comments, or follow us on Facebook and Twitter for more chances to win.

Rating: 3/5

Recommended for: The ones with interactive imaginations who get obsessed with the untold stories in arts and literature. Anyone with a fond hope of being immortalised every time they settle down for a session with their favourite Agatha Christie or erotica anthology.

Other recommended reading: For more insights into the intimacy and escapism of reading, take a peek at Reading Women, a book of portraits combined with commentary on the historical and cultural context. Who knows, you might even be inspired to do some scribbling about their stories too.

Jane Bradley