A vague sense of foreboding persistently stalks the reader on every page of this narrative, as if something potentially dangerous and forbidding awaits one at the turn of the next page. But then the pages fly by, nothing truly nefarious ever materializes and the feeling finally settles in that the substance of this narrative lies not in a likely event of cosmic importance or even in the anticipation of its occurrence but in the minutiae a reader usually glosses over.
The everyday happenings, some of them mystically inexplicable, some of them a little odd but so commonplace that they do not merit even a second thought let alone further introspection - the things we breeze past in an effort to dwell on the more materially satisfying aspects of life without realizing that each one of these discrete snippets of time spent with people in places is what makes up the structure of life itself.
As I glanced at the blurb (which clearly does not do the book justice even as a half-hearted synopsis), I felt a stab of sympathy for whoever wrote it (author/publisher/random intern), because not only is it very difficult to clearly define the contours of this book but it is equally trying to put one's finger on one strongly resonant theme in it since there are many.
There's the subject matter of the suffragettes (the term used for women campaigning in Britain in the late 19th and 20th centuries for the female ballot) and a young Mary Richardson who had taken a blade to assault one of the priceless works of art in the National Gallery on the eve of the First World War while Marie's great-grandfather Ted was a guard at the museum. It's no coincidence that our protagonist is the namesake of this revolutionary since the shadow of Mary Richardson's act of bravado looms large over Marie's life, silently influencing her in ways she remains oblivious to.
Hence it can be stated that feminist undertones are delicately woven into the the narrative without being glaringly obvious.
There's also an overarching feeling of the protagonist's unnerving indifference to most things, her tacit refusal to take the wheels of her own life and letting herself be propelled by happenings and the decisions made by people around herself. In the beginning I was speculating on the possibility of some sort of unique psychological condition plaguing her in an attempt to convincingly explain her aloofness from life or what could even be called her cowardice. But by the end of the narrative, I realized, a little bit of Marie's dogged impassivity lives inside all of us.
She is haunted by the spectre of her own isolation in the midst of people and her inability to steer her life in the direction of romantic entanglements and fulfillment of any kind. As a guard at the National Gallery in London, Marie comes across many visitors from day to night who spend agonizing minutes peering over works of art which have been witness to centuries of history. With the passage of time, she starts equating the cracks and fissures showing up in the fabric of her life with the craquelures in the paintings. And finally when she confronts her own hesitations after an enigmatic encounter with an owner of a chateau in France, the reader is left with the parting message that Marie has finally summoned the courage to destabilize the status quo in her life just as a certain young Mary Richardson of yesterday had dismantled the status quo in the socio-political landscape.
Chloe Aridjis is a gifted story-teller. Her writing is richly atmospheric and often plays out like a discordant symphony, combining too many erratic musical notes together and yet sounding so perfectly melodious. Same can be said about her choice of original but beautiful metaphors.
"It began with those viragos, he'd tell me, comets detached from the firmament, deviant and sharply veering, long-haired vagabond stars, hissing through the universe on their solitary paths, a tear in the social fabric, threats to the status quo. Yes once war broke out, Ted said, their battle eclipsed by larger events, became no more than one of many lit matches in the stratosphere."
This book made me feel thankful for my relationship with Netgalley which has allowed me to discover such promising new female authors as Chloe Aridjis and Nina Schuyler. In other words, this is very highly recommended.