And that’s what happened to me when I read Girl Reading by Katie Ward*. To support the subject of reading in these technology-driven times (snore!), I’ve been watching More4’s ‘TV Book Group’ (repeated at the mo on Channel 4, I believe), and Girl Reading was one of their highly-rated picks.
I thought it’d be right up my alley: 7 stories about...wait for it...different girls, reading; inspired by works of art which show...you’ve guessed it...different girls, reading. Obviously (!), reading, writing and the appreciation of words is a huge part of my life, and has specifically been the subject of couple of recent poems that I’ve written (Book Ends, which came about through the process of the non-sequence poem, The Reader’s Refrain)...so this book seemed like a keeper before I’d even searched it out from the bookshop’s shelves.
Except it wasn’t. Quite.
Now, I’m not slating it: the 7 stories are well-written, with completely different characters living completely different lives, showcasing a range of eras throughout history. For some of these girls, the act of reading is important; even vital to preserve a memory, a legacy. But for others, the book is merely a prop; it is incidental, fleeting. That juxtaposition (with the latter view so different from my own) is interesting and intriguing, and opens up a debate as to what it is about reading that is so involving – which is, I think, the book’s overall aim.
Equally, when looking at the paintings/images which inspired the author Katie Ward (which I had to do after finishing each story), it’s amazing to consider what she’s come up with in terms of translating those influences into stories.
Yet, for me, these stories were more like a snapshot of, rather than a window into, a character – and most of these characters didn’t move me; they didn’t breathe. There was a distance in the narrative for me; I felt kept at arm’s length, and this didn’t induce my emotional involvement. Any responses I had were ambiguous, almost apathetic – except for one story, ‘Angelica Kauffman, Portrait of a Lady, 1775’, pp 100-145. For me, this story is a beautifully rendered, poignant study of grief, its destructive power, and the – eventual – healing release of letting go. It was a story worth waiting for – and I was pleased to enjoy the following vignette too, but after that, things spiralled downwards for me (the last two stories were inconsequential for my tastes. Of course, they might not be for you – thankfully, we’re all different!)
The style that Katie Ward has chosen to write in is, for me (and many others, I should imagine) problematic, disruptive and, at times, elitist. She chooses not to use speech marks – at all – throughout the book, yet there is heavy use of dialogue (which is sometimes heavy itself and rather convoluted) – and so the dialogue is often jarring to read. I kept having to stop, go back, re-read to make step-by-step sense of what had just happened – and this pulls me out of the story-spell that I love to be bewitched by. So I have to wonder, why has she decided to do this? What does it add to the telling of these stories – or what does it take away?
Whilst on my degree, I studied the poetry of 19th Century American Walt Whitman – and groaned while reading it, though I came to admire what he was trying to do. Written in really long lines in really long verses over many, many pages, Whitman often repeats words, lines and themes. I personally found this a drudge to read (and probably, too, because it came after my beloved Emily Dickinson on the module, whose poetry form is the total opposite, though by no means ‘easier’!). Studying it, though, taught me that Whitman was about all about the toil: reading, thinking, living – all of it is hard work; it takes effort. But with effort and toil, you come to understand, to deeply experience, to even be enlightened – you are rewarded.
And so I couldn’t help wondering if Katie Ward’s choice of no-speech-marks works along the same lines: you have to work at, even struggle to, read it, understand it; but when you do, you gain something more profound than you would have if it was easy.
Wow. That's a deep thought. So did I, then?
Other than having that actual thought and the one story that really touched me (probably more for its unintentional resonance with things that have happened in my life)...No, I didn't. I get the whole toil = reward argument, have even written about it myself (my Writer’s Toil poem), but in Girl Reading I just find the overall effect artificial and a bit precious, if I’m being honest. Along with the lack of speech marks, the narrative is also plagued by switches of perspective with no line breaks (the empty line in the text between Character A’s viewpoint and Character B’s – or even C’s! – which stops the narrative getting confused or muddled), which makes the reading experience harder than it has to be. Though this language interchange does get easier in later stories, and may even capture the ‘flavour’ of the specific eras of history, why does the passage of time/character/place have to be so impenetrable?
Again, I’m not slating this book, just pointing out some areas which really troubled me. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I put it down over a week ago, which shows that it has worked some magic on me even if I haven’t ‘enjoyed’ it or found it pleasurable. Perhaps I’d do better to study this book (if I haven’t already?!), or discuss it with other readers – has anyone out there in blog-world read it? Care to share your views if you have? I’m interested and will always listen...though possibly debate!
I’ll end by showcasing some lines which really struck me, for there is great beauty and wisdom in them:
p 59, of a blacksmith who is losing his sanity: “[his] imagination burns hot yellow and red, the iron of his personality is smelted. What is left is scorched and brittle: the debris, the rubbish.”
pp 109-110, of a grand house and its interior: “She finds she is drawn to the vacancy, the stillness...Unoccupied spaces. Haunted by sadness....the absence of society, of comings and goings...makes it feel enormous like a cavern...Her artistic mind responds to the atmosphere, gives fictional accounts for it – this is a palace, a forest of briars surrounding it, its occupants put to sleep by an evil spell. When she passes a servant on a wooden step straining to collect the cobwebs with her duster, these fancies blow away.”
p 129: “...the ache of fatigue when one cannot sleep, the relief of giving up the attempt.”
p 132: “She is too far away to shout, yet she does, her hallo scattered by the wind.”
p148: “She knows that finesse comes with rehearsal, that effortless requires effort.”
p191: “Reading matter spreads like the petals of a flower with Cynthia at the centre.”
p193: “[The pond] is secluded and has drunk centuries of rain.”