Katie Ward's debut novel, "Girl Reading," starts with the contagious energy of a young girl in love as she returns from an illicit tryst, with her hair unkempt and her face flushed from running. For while the novel's title may imply a calm and intellectual work, "Girl Reading" is anything but. The seven portraits of girls (and women) reading are full of energy and conflict, and the moments when the girls are reading are mere placeholders for the painters and photographers that capture their fleeting images.
Laura, Esther and Flossie are just a few of the characters that span more than 700 years of books, painting, photography and digital imagery. Each chapter is like a game of "I Spy" -- where will the girl with the book appear next?
"Girl Reading" is presented as a novel but reads like a short story collection that shares a common thread, and, like most story collections, some chapters shine while others need less time in the spotlight.
In the most engrossing chapter, "Portrait of a Lady, 1775," Ward details the relationship between two women, one dead, one alive and grieving, and the female painter who comes to finish the deceased woman's portrait. The characters' discussion of social mores, gender roles and struggles for women is unforced and powerful without sinking into cliché. In "Carte de Visite, 1864," clairvoyant twin sisters meet after a long separation and explore, together and independently, their own reasons for choosing their individual paths as a photographer and a medium.
"Woman Reading, 1668" takes place in the Netherlands as a Dutch artist is inspired by, and attracted to, his deaf housemaid, Esther, leading him to expand his painting subject matter. "Reader in a Shoreditch Bar, 2008" was inspired by the "Women and Girls Reading" pool on Flickr, a photo-sharing website. The final chapter, "Sibil, 2060," is idealistically jarring as Ward takes on a vision of the future where original pieces of art are removed from the public eye and "kept safe" by the government.
The variation in writing style from chapter to chapter can be daring, but Ward tackles it with a confident hand. "Girl Reading" is less about the books that these women are holding than the circumstances that brought them to hold the book in the first place. Read in one sitting as a novel or over time as short stories, "Girl Reading" is a vivid portrait of a timeless subject.
Meganne Fabrega is a freelance writer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.