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Review: Asunder, By Chloe Aridjis (Chatto & Windus)

Cracks appear down at the gallery

Marie is a security guard at the National Gallery. She tells herself that she is more concerned with being than becoming. "Ambition has never been high on the list, nor marriage or adventure," she says. Her friend Daniel is a fellow non-conformist, a poet who is also a gallery guard, though this time at Tate Britain. He is too sensitive to submit to editorial direction and so remains defiantly unpublished.

Marie presents us with a series of finely wrought perspectives upon their friendship, and the rhythms and rituals of her work at the Gallery. She guides us into her nondescript flat in Islington, where she busies herself with her own discreet artworks, a series of miniature landscapes and interiors populated with dead moths.

The vignettes Marie presents to us about her static existence resonate with her haunting installations. "Time was collapsed into them," she says of her creations. Yet change is afoot. The novel opens on an autumn Tuesday when a colleague dies on duty. It is not a dramatic death but it is the most notable incident during her nine years at the Gallery.

Marie's equilibrium begins to falter. She dwells upon her beloved great-grandfather Ted. He was also a guard at the National Gallery, where in 1914 he witnessed the famous attack on the Rokeby Venus by a suffragette armed with a meat cleaver. Marie is stirred further when she overhears a picture restorer pointing out that the paint in all the old masters around her is cracking.

Following these portents of destruction and deterioration Marie sets off on a couple of journeys, which become intertwined with strange events.

Aridjis's writing is refreshingly escapist on at least a couple of levels. Characters who explicitly spurn conventional careers and lifestyle aspirations are appealing. However passive Marie seems, when it comes to exerting autonomy over her life, a winning self-esteem and assertiveness are evident. Moreover, the novel itself has escaped from the straitjacket of conventional narrative and plot. Instead, Marie delivers stories about herself and others, allusive anecdotes which create elegant splays of loose ends. This determined provisionality leaves Asunder free to devote itself to mood and atmosphere, in which it is highly successful.

In this way it closely resembles Aridjis's striking debut, Book of Clouds. Theory is artfully woven into the economic, detached prose of both novels.

It has been pointed out that Aridjis's writing owes something to W G Sebald. Certainly Sebald's enigmatic elusiveness, shifting melancholic ambiences and Gothic inclinations are all present here. Leaving questions of influence aside, as we enter into the life of its anti-heroine, reading Asunder offers an unusually absorbing experience. It is also an unusually enjoyable one.