BY LARA BUXBAUM
Chloe Aridjis’s debut, Book of Clouds, was an unexpected delight, an engrossing and transfixing tale of a solitary young woman displaced in Berlin. Asunder is her second novel, one whose publication I eagerly anticipated.
Aridjis is particularly adept at rendering the lives of the introverted and outcast; her off-beat and somewhat kooky characters inhabit the margins of society and observe life from an oblique angle. She captures the rich texture of the city streets, particularly those beyond the tourist map.
Following in the footsteps of her great-grandfather who spent his life as a museum guard, Marie, the protagonist of Asunder, has been a guard at the National Gallery in London for nine years. She is temperamentally suited to this vocation, which is “perfect for those individuals who are unconcerned with their position in the world and have fallen prey to a relatively permanent mental or physical sloth”.
Marie spends her days moving from the museum collection to her personal collection of miniature landscapes, devoid of people, and “only very occasionally did [she] feel like prying open a space between the two in that nebulous area called real life”.
Her best friend, Daniel, is a fellow guard tormented by a mysterious limp. He is an unpublished poet, whose latest collection is entitled The Tinnitus of the Old Astronaut, inspired by obsessively listening to “Death of a Clown” by The Kinks.
Marie, like Tatiana in Book of Clouds, becomes preoccupied with the “ghostly traces” of history in the present. She believes that “much of history … has been carried out by the violence of the angle” and ponders the parallel created by the violence perpetuated on the bodies of the suffragettes and the violent acts of protest they committed. Marie’s name is a distorted echo of the suffragette, Mary Richardson, who in 1914 took a meat cleaver to Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus, in the section of the National Gallery entrusted to Marie’s great-grandfather, thus providing him with the “story of his life”. She is haunted by this destructive act along with more subtle, natural processes of decay, like the cracks in paint which develop over time, termed “craquelure”.
There is a mood of unease lurking below the narrative surface which gradually comes to the fore, as the fissures in the painted world begin to extend into the world of the real. Marie’s torpor is irrevocably disturbed by the events on a trip to Paris with Daniel which recalibrates the distance between them and results in an unexpected eruption.
Asunder is a quiet book, with moments of unanticipated exhilaration as Aridjis explores the explosive possibilities that can extend from an encounter with art. Her distinctive style and original metaphors will surprise and reward attentive readers, altering their own relation to the world beyond the pages of the book.