This is Katie Ward’s first novel, and a wonderfully intricate work which would be impressive were it her third, or fourth, or whateverth work. It doesn’t come across as a story as much as it does a series of scenes all of are built around variations on a particular image – a girl or a woman reading a book. We move forward through time with each scene, from 1333 to 2060. I can’t properly describe the chapters as individual stories, as there is no real beginning or ending, just some time spent with the characters, frequently stepping in at the start, the middle, or the end of their stories, but never including all three such parts together. The woman reading is the shared experience, as expressed in the opening quote from Jung’s ‘Synchronicity: an acausal connecting principle’ (Collected Works, vol. 8):
You can never say with certainty that what appears to be going on in the collective unconscious of a single individual is not also happening in other individuals or organisms or things or situations.
The book also charts the evolution of women’s position and right in society. It opens with Laura, the Sienese foundling who is beaten by the priest overseeing the home where she lives, and abandoned by the man who has seduced her and left her pregnant. She is chosen to be the model for the Virgin Mary in Simone Martini’s triptych Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Ansanus, now in the Uffizi, but originally in Siena’s Cathedral. We never find out how her story ends; both a kindly and an ominous ending are hinted at. She has no rights and no future except becoming a nun or being married off. She can read a little of the Book of Hours which she is given to hold, but her literacy is limited to her worship. But Esther, a maid in the house of the artist Pieter Janssens Elinga in 1668, can read secular romances, uses them as an escape from her daily drudgery, and is caught in one such moment by her master, who subsequently paints her thus, from the back, as he first saw her reading. The following story is a more complicated study of love and grief, and the subject of the painting is dead before the story begins. Her lover asks Angelica Kauffman, the artist who began the painting, to finish it. She does so, and thus we learn a great deal about her and the mourning lover, but the ending is again left ambiguous. I’m not sure if Maria, provided for by her husband from whom she is of course separated, living in a rich house, with a full library, is in the end able to live without her Frances. The following tale looks at twin sisters, who as adults have become distant, one turning her back on the psychic career their mother chose for them. This sister got married, had children, and now runs her late husband’s photography business – still a relatively new technology in 1864. This woman is successful, and has significant autonomy as a widow to manage her own affairs and to work in such a technological field. Her sister, a medium, is seeking proof of life after death, which she seemingly finds in a photograph developed by her sister, as she also commissions her own “carte de visite” which in this story is the image of the woman reading. It is interesting that she protests the choice of book, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, as a working woman who almost certainly has no domestic responsibilities. The next story, set in 1916, was for me the most complicated, with multiple images of women reading being created, some in the women’s own imaginations/mind’s eye, others by artists. Cynthia, an academic, focused more or less completely on her work, sees herself at work, imagines the future of the tome she is producing:
Reading matter spreads like the petals of a flower with Cynthia at the centre – on the kitchen floor and dresser and draining board. Food is less important than work. Comfort is less important than food. (p.191)
The teenager Gwen, staying in Cynthia’s house ostensibly to help her work, is actually bent on seducing, or being seduced by, a male artist, a conscientious objector. The scene in which she poses before him in the garden, pretending to read her Jane Austen, is painful in its accurate description of an inexperienced imagination dreaming of a desired relationship, when it is obvious that the object of its admiration is unknowing and uninterested. A third woman, the androgynous Sinclair, arrives to thwart Gwen’s dreams, being both painted (in the nude) by Lawrence, and being his lover; she too settles herself in the garden to read, but does so with an absolute lack of self-consciousness. Gwen is very understandably threatened. It’s an interesting story; the men are more sketchily-drawn types, I think deliberately, given the focus on the women’s acts of reading and emotions. We are brought fully into our own times, into 2008, anyway, where the image of the woman reading is a photograph taken in a bar, as her life as she saw it unfolding is ending, no longer keeping her interest or nourishing her. She has gone to university, is working in politics, and has aspirations to stand for Parliament one day, although this no longer seems so important. Her boyfriend wants to marry her, but she is not keen. She questions everything. As she takes herself out one night, alone, to think about what is next, she meets a photographer, and ultimately agrees to let him take her photo as she reads her book. The next stage, if it is that, of their story is her (I presume it’s her) comment on the photo he took of her, subsequently posted to Flickr. Beyond that, we can’t know what happens.
But Ward doesn’t end the story here. The final chapter takes place in 2060, and focuses on a woman and the machine she has created, called Sibil (the Sibyl, in Greek mythical tradition, being a prophetess). The woman has put her family life at risk to work in Europe on her creation, at a time when no art works may be physically seen by the public, at a time when people live in mesh (a fully virtual world) as much as, if not more than, they do in real life. This Sibyl contains a vast database of artworks with which users can interact. But only some images work properly. I loved this story, and will not discuss the art aspect further to keep the ending a secret. But this tale was also noteworthy for the relationship between Sincerity, the inventor, and her creation, Sibil. It seemed to me to be a very interesting Pygmalion-Galatea type of relationship, more personal and intimate than would be expected or, almost certainly, condoned. But I will, again, say no more.It’s a wonderful book, with so many intricately-woven strands and shared themes, across time and space. You must read it. At least one of the many styles of art and/or kinds of stories should appeal to every reader. I’m still trying to decide which story was my favourite, but I definitely loved Simone Martini’s triptych Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Ansanus best out of all the artworks referenced. Katie Ward provides a full list of relevant artworks, which inspired the stories, at the end of the book, and on her website here. If you do read the book, I would be immensely grateful if you would tell me if and where you see a variation on the book cover illustrated to the left.