The women depicted in seven works of art offer glimpses of female-centered worlds across time, in an ingenious British debut.
Called a novel, this collection of chronologically organized, ultimately linked tales shares a sensitivity to women’s roles and rights through history, a brightness of imagination and luxuriant detail. Ward’s style is atmospheric, poetic and dexterous, often exploring interior worlds lit by powerful emotion. “Angelica Kauffman Portrait of a Lady, 1775,” for example, examines not only the exiled, heartbroken countess who has lost her female lover but the frustrations of the artist, criticized for anatomical errors in her work yet excluded by gender from life-drawing classes. Elsewhere, a pregnant Tuscan foundling becomes the Virgin of an Annunciation; a Victorian photographer takes images of her twin sister, a medium; and a besotted 20th-century teenager gives away a sketch of her sister. These and other scenarios are pulled together in the final episode, dated 2060, which reveals an electronic figure, Sibil, capable of empathizing with works of art and sharing the stories buried within them, but currently confined to only six works, namely the ones in the preceding chapters.
Ambitious in range and technically impressive, this unusually structured tasting menu of a book lacks true cohesion and ends too tidily but is undoubtedly the work of a writer to watch.