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Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Book Review: Girl Reading by Katie Ward

One of the first things you'd notice if you picked this book up in a shop and flicked through it is that it has a distinct lack of speech marks. It could be a bit perturbing but I'd advise you to roll with it for a little while. The disappearance of those markers allows a fluidity of prose without diluting the effect of the words themselves. Actually, I thought the book as a whole was outstanding.

Ward takes seven portraits of women reading as her starting point. In seven chapters she goes inside each of them, delving into the life of the sitter and imagining the story around the portrait. For me, the best part of reading this book was the delightful surprise of, having declared the previous chapter my favourite, discovering it was matched in quality by the next one. The years of the portraits are wide-ranging: 1333, 1668, 1775, 1864, 1916, 2008 and 2060. The differing periods inevitably requires a different tone, a different style. Ward manages this without trouble. At no point was I jolted out of the period I was supposed to be in.

Looking back after I've let the book simmer in my memory for a while, I can probably discern a couple of chapters I liked a tiny bit more than the others. 1668 takes "Woman Reading" by Pieter Janssens Elinga as its starting point. It revolves around a deaf girl, Esther, following her to her position as a maid and the voyeuristic way the idea for the painting is obtained. Part of the reason I found this chapter so attractive were the descriptions of Amsterdam close to the beginning. Very evocative, even though they only take up a short space. Other than that, Esther is wonderfully developed and she is one of the characters who sticks in my mind most.

Another is the bereaved Maria in 1775, stemming from "Portrait of a Lady" by Angelica Kauffman. She has lost her lover, Frances, and Kauffman is finishing the portrait she started while Frances was alive. I think the beauty of this chapter in particular is the interaction between the characters, all drawn impeccably. Even Frances makes her appearance in one form. The conversations between Maria and the artist are exquisite.

I could easily talk about each of the chapters and what I loved about them. It probably comes as no surprise that I'm wholeheartedly recommending this book but just to reiterate - in my opinion, it's excellent. One of my favourite books of the year thus far.

Visit Katie Ward's website for more information about her and Girl Reading.

1 comment:

Dominic said...

Wonderfully warm review of the book that I nominate as my book of the year.