Chatto & Windus, £14.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Asunder, By Chloe Aridjis

This unusual novel of art, solitude and imagination breaks the rules but creates a vision of its own

In her charming and unconventional debut, Book of Clouds, Chloe Aridjis demonstrated a fine talent for the picaresque. Her second novel, Asunder, similarly places itself in that tradition, using the Romantic image of the wanderer to portray a young woman who drifts through her life as an observer rather than as an actor.

Marie works at the National Gallery as a museum guard, coolly and intelligently surveying paintings and the public alike, keeping her distance from both, cherishing her anonymity and invisibility. At night she returns to her flat and makes miniature installations, featuring dead moths in eggshells; artworks hinting at the restrictions of her existence. At weekends she roams around London. She visits an unnamed northern cathedral city. She visits Paris.

Simultaneously she maps for us her own mind's geography. Landmark memories include the tale told to her by her great-grandfather Ted, who witnessed a suffragette's knife attack on one of the gallery's masterpieces, the Rokeby Venus, on the eve of the First World War. Marie meditates on the cruelty of the force-feeding imposed on those imprisoned suffragettes who went on hunger strike. She leafs through a volume of photographs of the 19th-century female patients labelled hysterics by doctors such as Charcot and hypnotised into illustrative poses. Violence done by women and violence done to women: Marie's detachment and lack of engagement stand in contrast, as though she's frightened that the fact of femaleness itself might be a borderline state.

Femininity involves performance, she understands, but she prefers to stay aloof. Solitariness is a characteristic of traditional romance as well as of the Goethe variety. Marie has no close female friends to spar with, just a series of eccentric, self-absorbed male companions.

Finally, during her trip to France, Marie breaks out of her passivity. Having acknowledged that the male gaze can exert oppressive weight on its female object, she reverses roles and experiences the thrills and dangers of gazing at a man, and meets a violent response. A slashed painting; a scratched face: the reader is invited to compare them.

The narrative appears to drift, like a flâneuse, just as Marie does, which is exhilarating. The novel wonderfully disobeys all conventional rules of realism and plotting, of show-don't-tell. It has minimal dialogue. Much of its action takes place inside Marie's mind. Structured by metaphors of opposing states, it describes and embodies the imagination, currently scorned in our realism-obsessed, memoir-obsessed culture.

Powerful and artful, Asunder works like a poem, pulling us into a labyrinthine sequence of connected images. By the end, it seems like an abstract painting, apparently defying narrative time. Aridjis requires us to be active, playful readers, unwinding and re-winding Marie/Ariadne's ball of string, knotting it into our own patterns, making our own cat's-cradles of meaning. At the same time we have to yield to the novel's insistent flow, its currents and eddies of sensual thought. This all makes for rapturous and enraptured reading.

Michèle Roberts's latest novel is 'Ignorance' (Bloomsbury)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum