I have two broader points to make about this excellent novel; one having to do with Ward's writing, and one that has nothing to do with Ward-as-author at all, but which does have a bearing on the question of 21st-century books. Only a small bearing. But a bearing. I'll keep that to the end. The post can exit pursued by a bearing.
First things first: this is a very good novel indeed, a debut of rare promise. Seven sections that seem at first to be seven separate short-stories (though at the end the whole is tied-together fairly neatly). Each of these is a two-inches-wide piece of ivory on which Ward has worked with an admirably fine brush; and each focusses on a woman who is the subject of a painting or photograph, portrayed in the act of reading a book. The first is a fourteenth-century Italian convent girl, the second a seventeenth-century Dutch servant, the third an eighteenth-century lady and so on up to the final scene set in a near-future sort-of sfnal 21st-century. The writing is coolly, beautifully controlled: unflashy but lucid and modulated with genuinely impressive technical deftness, always expressive and lovely to read. The characterisation is a little more variably achieved, I thought; sometimes expertly and efficiently realised, sometimes less so. The idea of putting ekphrasis centre-stage, and using it as a lense to refract some of the varieties of female lived experience, is clever and effective. All in all: very classy.
Anyway, here's the second thing. This is a novel, not a collection of thematically-linked short stories, howevermuch it initially appears to be so. And the quality of the individual section, though inevitably a little variable, is high; I enjoyed reading them all very much. Nevertheless it took me a long time to finish reading this book, and that was for the following reason. I bought it as an e-book, for the Kindle app in my iPhone. I have seen it suggested that since e-books don't actually lie accusingly un- or half-read on our bedside tables, they fall into an out-of-sight-and-mind hole that actual books avoid. (Have a look at this intriguing John C Abell piece in Wired, 'Five Reasons Why E-Books Aren’t There Yet', paying particular attention to reason 1). I must say, I haven't found so: I seem to have no problem keeping going right through, even with quite lengthy books (I read Tim Powers' brand-new-in-2010-honestly Declare on the same app, for instance, and it's hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages long). But for some reason I kept not going back to Ward's novel. This is not because I wasn't enjoying reading it, because I was. But I think it had to do with the fact that as I reached the end of each of the seven sections, some box in my sub-brain got ticked, I subconsciously thought 'done and done!' -- and at next reading opportunity I'd pick up something else. Which is a roundabout way of saying: it may be that reading whole short-story collections, or novels (like this one) that play formal games on the linked-short-story format, may be harder to do in e-book format than in the codex. Not Ward's fault, of course; but an interesting wrinkle in a mode of buying and reading books for which I have hitherto had only praise.
Not to lose my bearings: talking of buying and reading books -- do both.