Contrary to expectation for a progressive young Londoner, and indeed for a modern fictional heroine, the narrator of Chloe Aridjis’s exquisitely original second novel, Asunder, lives deliberately quietly and obscurely. ‘I have always been more interested in being than becoming,’ explains Marie, a 33-year-old attendant at the National Gallery. ‘Ambition has never been high on the list, nor marriage or adventure.’ Like Tatiana, the eerily perceptive protagonist of Aridjis’s acclaimed debut, Book of Clouds, Marie is committed above all to contemplation, and so has settled in a job where, de-personalised and de-sexed in her grey uniform, she can observe without being observed. Subverting the insistent male gaze is a central preoccupation of Asunder, whose spellbindingly atmospheric narrative flows around a real historical event: the slashing of Diego Velázquez’s painting of ‘Rokeby Venus’ by cleaver-wielding suffragette Mary Richardson, who was protesting the imprisonment of Emmeline Pankhurst.
Marie had heard about the incident many times from her great-grandfather, Ted, also once an attendant at the National Gallery and witness, that day in 1914, to the spectacle of a ‘small, nervous figure’ who ‘morphed into an arrow of fury and begun hacking away at the nude woman on the wall.’ Emotionally enmeshed with the harrowing experiences of the suffragettes, whom she ‘inherited from Ted’, Marie is preternaturally alert to the past’s haunting of the present, and agrees with her friend Daniel that ‘on the very fringes of tranquillity…should be at least one or two pacing wolves.’ When Marie visits Daniel at the Tate, where he works, she thinks about how the Millbank building ‘lay on the site of a failed Victorian prison.’ And one of her own recent artworks—small, intricate installations of landscapes—is a model of an excavation, inspired by ‘the various archaeological investigations of the terrain below the Gallery.’
Aridjis’s prose is a miracle of poetry and precision, and her evocation of London—both the city’s lingering ghosts and its daunting, teeming contemporary reality—is goose bump-inducingly recognisable. With no plot to speak of—the main action consists of Marie going on two trips, first to a Northern cathedral town with her flatmate, and then to Paris with Daniel—Asunder nonetheless exerts as magnetic an allure as any more conventional page-turner, so masterly is Aridjis’s layering of theme and imagery via Marie’s idiosyncratic perspective.
Some people, Marie knows, smash through life while paying no heed to unseen vibrations, to shadows and subtleties. Though no stranger to violent impulses herself, she prefers to leave as soft an impression as possible, like her careful fingers creating the sea in a 3-D rendering of William Dyce’s ‘Pegwell Bay’: ‘Very gently I pressed my thumbs down on the gold leaf not wanting to tear it, gently gently till the surface became rippled, like a gilt shimmer on water capturing the last of the day’s sun in the low tide, clinging to those last bits of illumination.’