Marie loves her job in London’s National Gallery. Like her great-grandfather before her, she is a warden, responsible for protecting the state’s art collection. To Marie, though, the gallery is more than merely a building containing paintings. For her, it represents an arena in which traces of the past reassert themselves in the present; specifically, the 1914 protest attack by suffragette Mary Richardson on Diego Velasquez’s Rokeby Venus, which her great-grandfather witnessed. Marie becomes increasingly obsessed with the trace remnants of this attack. When she overhears a tour guide explaining the notion of craquelure, the way paint shifts, changes, and cracks over time, her obsession deepens. What follows is a darkly engaging novel which explores themes of history, madness, artistic creation, and decay.
I think I wanted more from this novel. Don’t get me wrong: I certainly enjoyed it. Some of the writing was really striking, and as a narrator, Marie was strange, intoxicating and disturbing; I was fully engrossed after just a few pages. However, the intense
atmosphere of danger which I found so enticing in the novel’s early stages never really amounted to anything; I was expecting a murder, maybe, or some scandalous revelation from Marie’s shady past. Obviously I have been reading too many thrillers, because Asunder is more sophisticated than my imagination: rather than easy sensationalism, what the novel recreates is the lingering feeling that something else, something unseen, is going on. As with the cracks which so preoccupy Marie, the devil is in the detail. In mood, Asunder reminded me of Jane Harris’s excellent novel The Observations, or perhaps Harriet Lane’s Alys, Always. If you feel the need to be gently disturbed, give it a try.