February 8, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Katie Ward's Girl Reading is an ambitious and cleverly executed debut novel, the stories of seven portraits of women reading through the ages woven into a cohesive narrative.
The Guardian wrote of the novel:
"This debut should appeal to a wide but discerning readership. Not for Katie Ward the coming-of-age first novel starring a barely disguised over-sensitive heroine airing her resentments: Girl Reading reads as though its author is five books down. She has plunged straight into a series of difficult challenges, her handling of time and place accomplished with authority, skill and knowledge. If the basic idea is simple, reminiscent of the classic writing class exercise in which students are made to produce a tale inspired by an art postcard, the result is a complex showcase for Ward’s talents."
Girl Reading is a novel in 7 chapters, each chapter with a contained story set in a different historical period. It starts in medieval Italy and it develops through to the present day, and beyond. And each chapter is about a work of art, a painting or a photograph of a woman reading a book.
This orchestral interpretation of a piece for harpsichord sets the mood beautifully for the first chapter of Girl Reading. In the medieval city state of Siena, the cathedral commissions a new altarpiece depicting the Virgin Mary. The chosen painter is the bad tempered maestro Simone Martini, and the reluctant sitter is Laura, a foundling child with problems of her own.
Handel compositions are synonymous with grandeur and this chapter is as much about institutional posturing as anything else; and yet Handel was also involved with London's Foundling Hospital and would have felt deep compassion for Laura's dilemma.
Chapter 2: 'Beggin' by Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons
The groove and lyric in 'Beggin' speaks of male sexual frustration dressed up as romantic feeling. A key character in Chapter 2 of Girl Reading is the Dutch painter, Elinga. He's a contemporary of Rembrandt, and harbours sexual desires for his maidservant – who does not reciprocate. The lyric of the song goes: 'Put your loving hand out, Baby'; in the book she 'hurries away, knocking past his open, insulting hand.'
Chapter 3: 'Angel' by Aretha Franklin
This record isn't only about a broken heart, but also the support and friendship between two women. 'Come by when you can, I've got something that I want to say' is a plea for help. 'Gotta find me an angel' is the repeated wish.
The premise of Chapter 3 is a countess coping with grief, and how an artist, Angelica Kauffman, helps her to overcome it by finishing the portrait of her dead lover.
The 'angel' here could mean several things: the protective spirit of the deceased; the potential for new love to be found within this lifetime; and the friends who come to our aid in times of distress – in this case, a paintress who was nicknamed 'Miss Angel' by Joshua Reynolds.
Chapter 4: 'My Vision' by Jakatta & Seal
'Tonight magical things are going to happen' says a mysterious voice on this record. Is this a promise of genuine magic, or just crowd-pleasing theatrical bunkum?
The middle chapter of Girl Reading is set in Victorian times. Being Victorian must have been terribly confusing, as cutting-edge scientific breakthroughs were inexorably mixed with illusion, parlour tricks and hoaxes. 'Real' and 'artificial' were indistinguishable to most people.
The chapter concerns twin sisters: one twin is a photographer; the other is a spiritualist medium. Both professions would have seemed impossible and marvellous to Victorian eyes, and both professions are about the inexplicable creation of images out of darkness. As Seal sings so persuasively, 'Can you see my vision...?'
Chapter 5: 'Sunday Girl' by Blondie
Chapter 5 takes place during the Great War and is mainly told from the point of view of 15-year-old Gwen. She's well-meaning, awkward and hopelessly in love with Laurence, a post-Impressionist painter and conscientious objector. That Laurence is ten years older than Gwen is surely a barrier she can overcome? The real difficulty is the appearance of a sensuous and glamorous rival.
The song goes: 'Hey, I saw your guy with a different girl, looks like he's in another world, run and hide Sunday Girl'; the book goes: 'Running off to cry in private seems like the appropriate gesture ... so Gwen does.'
Chapter 6: 'Halo' by Beyoncé
This is the chapter of Girl Reading set in the present day. Like Beyoncé, the lead character, Jeannine Okoro, is intelligent, independent, beautiful and ambitious. Unlike Beyoncé however, Jeannine feels isolated and displaced. It begins to dawn on her that she might be in the wrong job, the wrong relationship, that she might never fulfil her potential. How much of this is a result of lingering prejudice in the modern world? And how much of it is down to her own bad judgement?
Jeannine would know the song 'Halo', and hearing it would be a bitter-sweet experience: she'd believe absolutely that walls can come 'tumbling down' but feel cynical about the idea that being with a man can help her to achieve her goals.
Chapter 7: 'Hidden Place' by Björk
The last chapter of Girl Reading is set in the year 2060, and the extraordinary musical landscapes created by Björk on her album Vespertine suit it very well.
In this future, we live our lives with one foot in the physical world and one foot in the virtual world called Mesh. All original paintings and sculpture are hidden away from the public, who now have to make do with digital reproductions. Nearly all books are electronic too. In an age ruled by immersive technology, Sincerity Yabuki has invented something called the Sibil, and her research is coveted by governments around the world.
The lyrics of 'Hidden Place' are about the yearning for physical contact: 'Now I have been slightly shy, and I can smell a pinch of hope / To almost have allowed one's fingers to stroke / The fingers I was given to touch with, but careful, careful / There lies my passion.' Sincerity's existence, though visually miraculous, is almost devoid of the sensation of touch. She lives apart from her partner and daughter, maintaining these relationships via her avatar.
In addition, the backing vocals on 'Hidden Place' have an unearthly siren-like beauty, as though they are calling you into the unknown ... likewise, Sincerity is magnetically drawn towards the Sibil and ever further away from home.
For the reader of the novel, the 6 previous chapters have been pointing to this moment.
Katie Ward and Girl Reading links:
Book Snob review
The Daily Beast review
Harriet Devine's Blog review
Kirkus Reviews review
Lloyd Shepherd review
Secluded Charm review
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists