A self-effacing life devoted to obsessive minutiae is cracked open in this oblique, disturbing, yet oddly compelling tale.
Surreal and haunting, Aridjis’ (Book of Clouds, 2009) understated second novel, set in London, traces a decisive phase in the life of Marie, a 33-year-old museum guard who has worked at the National Gallery for nearly 10 years. With her days spent almost invisibly among the visitors and paintings, her free time is passed in similarly low-key fashion, hanging out with a poet friend, Daniel, or working on a collection of peculiar sculptures—landscapes made inside eggshells. Marie’s hypnotic half-life is dotted with eccentric characters—a taxidermist; her flatmate, who is obsessed with moth strips—and brief yet telling descriptive sidebars about strange details, like the causes of craquelure (cracked varnish on old paintings) or the destruction of a famous work of art at the gallery by a suffragette, an act witnessed by Marie’s great-grandfather. Prisons, mental institutions and peculiar visions of decay crop up repeatedly, while actual events are few. But during a strange, vaguely unpleasant holiday in Paris with Daniel, a chance encounter in a dilapidated chateau pushes Marie over an invisible line.
Dark and peculiar, simultaneously sinister and playful, Aridjis’ modern gothic vision will charm those prepared to linger in her cabinet of curiosities.