I follow a lot of novelists online these days, via Twitter and RSS, and one of the novelists I started digitally stalking this year was Katie Ward. I don’t know how I discovered her, but I followed her, she followed me back, she did a few #FFs with me in them, which was nice, particularly because I don’t do #FF and couldn’t really reciprocate. We got on so well that I put her on the list of people to receive the proofs of The English Monster, and at that point Katie became not just “someone I know online”, she became “the first person on Planet Earth to review my book.” Which is, as you can imagine, rather amazing for someone I’ve never actually met in person.
Of course, the reason I started stalking Katie in the first place was that she’d written a book of her own, Girl Reading. When we started conversing online, I downloaded it onto my Kindle and, as is the way of these things, I downloaded a lot of other things that week and it sort of fell down the list. With the unpardonable result that Katie read my book (which isn’t even out yet) before I read hers.
Well, I finally started reading it last Friday. I finished it last night. And I bloody well loved it.
How to describe it? There’s a certain amount of dogmatic debate in the Amazon reviews about whether it’s a “novel” at all, the reason being it’s structured as seven individual stories which echo each other, the first six of which resonate through the seventh, not in a tying-up-loose-ends sort of way, more as a thematic denouement which is satisfying and enthralling. Each story is built around a picture of a woman reading a book, beginning in 14th century Siena and ending, with the seventh tale, in a near-future world where people live both in the real world and in the “mesh”, which is Katie’s own take on cyberspace.
That’s essentially the structure, but that doesn’t tell you anything about the book. Those people arguing about whether it’s a novel or not are entitled to their debate, but it seems sterile and pointless. This is a book with a purpose and an engine; you don’t dip in and out of it like you would with a collection of short stories. Katie writes with frankly sickening (to another writer) skill – she has that rare ability to within a line or two put personalities into your head where they stand up and start walking about under their own power. Every character in the book is alive, even those who appear in passing, and I can picture each and every one of the core female characters from each story as if they were sitting in among the photos on my living room shelves.
As for what it’s about – well, I wouldn’t presume. All I’ll say is it seemed to strike a real chord with me after something I wrote a few weeks ago about our modern experience of culture, how it is changing and (in some respects) thinning out as technology takes more and more of a central role. The central device of the book – that of the reader watching a picture being created of a woman who is reading – is an ingenious device for examining our Ways of Seeing, to quote John Berger. As I read the book, I found myself hoping the images being used for the stories would be displayed at the end, but they’re not; instead, there’s an Author’s Note, with only the names of pictures and artists and their dates and locations available to us to investigate further. Which, the more I think about it, is correct. If the book has a message, for me it is to go and experience these pictures in as real a way as you can manage, because that is how you dig out your own humanity. As Katie says on her own website:
I truly understand why many people will feel moved to lookup these pictures online, but, I promise you, the art in real life is much better.
A luminous, beautiful, fascinating book. Buy it and read it.