Asunder by Chloe Aridjis: More interested in being than becoming

Asunder communicates its ideas, and their supporting cultural references, subtly and efficiently.

The second novel by London-based author Chloe Aridjis, Asunder appears on its surface to be about quiet contemplation, and how far it is possible to abstract oneself from the dramas and traumas of social interaction. Claiming not to suffer from listlessness or boredom, protagonist Marie has sought out a job (but not a career) as a museum guard at the National Gallery, working there as "I have always been more interested in being than becoming", killing time by trying to guess how long remains before closing without looking at her watch, or ruminating upon the gradual process of paint cracking.

After nine uneventful years, Marie becomes restless. The sad, quiet death of a 68-year-old colleague, felled by a heart attack at work, jolts her into realising that life is slowly slipping away from her. Her friendship with poet Daniel, fired from the Gallery for noisily pacing around, encourages her to think about his unrequited loves and her own brief liaisons "that didn’t threaten the peace", but when he offers to take her to Paris, she struggles with the potential short-term change to her routine, deliberating for days before taking the trip which irrevocably alters her carefully contained world.

"Painters create order from disorder, but the moment that order has been created, the slow march towards disorder begins again", reflects Marie, and her greatest fear, it seems, is of encounters that will change her situation in any way. Like her, Daniel keeps people at a distance, writing to other poets across the world, preferring not to meet them as this always leads to the correspondence shrivelling; Marie wrote to a prisoner who later escaped from Belmarsh, the realisation that he had her address leading her to panic that he would enter her life in a ruinous fashion (as in Robert Hamer’s It Always Rains on Sunday, about a Bethnal Green housewife whose life is torn apart by this very occurrence). This does not happen, and Marie wonders what became of her penfriend: finally, in Paris, she reaches the uncharacteristic yet inevitable point where she spontaneously breaks out of herself and struggles to connect with an inscrutable stranger.

At its core, Asunder is about time: how slowly it passes, the futility of trying to fight its effects, and generational changes in people and ideas. Besides her memories of vanished shops and her knowledge of different approaches to the restoration of art, Marie often thinks about the history of violence against the suffragettes, as well as her great-grandfather Ted, and the most significant moment of his life as a National Gallery guard, in 1914, when he slipped in trying to catch Mary Richardson, granting her vital seconds to slash Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus in protest against Emmeline Pankhurst’s imprisonment. As a child, Marie heard this story countless times, aware that she was supposed to see Richardson as a criminal but sympathising with her cause, touchingly confessing that "I loved [Ted] just a tiny bit more for not reaching her in time".

Asunder communicates its ideas, and their supporting cultural references, subtly and efficiently. Aridjis is particularly strong on the nature of travel, in London and in general. Her prose is full of deft imagery – such as the way the women "comb the city from [their] hair" on changing into their Gallery uniform – and the moment where Marie becomes aware that she has become "captive to that irrational behaviour in foreign cities when you feel everyone is watching when in reality not a soul has noticed your existence" is especially touching.

The influence of nouveau roman authors such as Marguerite Duras and Nathalie Sarraute, and British counterparts Ann Quin and Christine-Brooke-Rose can be felt in the rarefied focus on the narrator’s interior world, her corresponding observations of the mundane realities of so much human behaviour, and the way in which her narrative slowly builds towards a climax that changes her life without feeling life-changing. As a reminder that life will pass you by if you choose to experience it passively, however, Asunder is far more powerful than it immediately seems.

Protagonist Marie takes a job as a museum guard at the National Gallery. Photograph: Getty Images.

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times