Emily Rhodes

Picture study: Second Self, by Chloë Ashby, reviewed

Restoring the painting ‘View of Scheveningen Sands’, an art conservationist uncovers a vital detail, leading her to regret the pact she once made with her husband

‘View of Scheveningen Sands’, c. 1641, by the Dutch painter Hendrick van Anthonissen. [Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images]

Having established a name for herself as a talented art critic for the national press, Chloë Ashby employs her expertise with illuminating effect in her fiction. In her first novel, Wet Paint, she used the uncomfortable gaze of the barmaid in Manet’s ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bergère’ to explore how her protagonist sees and is seen. In her new novel, Second Self, the central painting is ‘View of Scheveningen Sands’ by Hendrick van Anthonissen, which again becomes an insightful parallel to the protagonist’s life.

Cathy, 35, an art conservationist, is happily married to Noah, 11 years her senior, an academic and authority on international relations. Home is a flat in the yuppified part of Hackney, where Noah lovingly cooks and where the couple enjoy steamy sex in the shower after Cathy’s morning jogs along the towpath. Cathy’s best friend from school, Anna, lives a different version of this cushioned metropolitan existence. In her smart Kentish Town house, tasteful furnishings hide beneath the happily chaotic accoutrements of her toddler; beside ‘soothing sage green’ cupboards, the kitchen table is ‘pollinated with crumbs’. There are weekend trips to Cathy’s mother in Norfolk and weekly dinners with Noah’s brother’s boisterous Jewish intellectual family. So far, so cosy; but a tension runs beneath, tripping Cathy up on her jogs. She and Noah initially agreed that they didn’t want children, but, eight years into their marriage, does she want them after all?

Starting work on ‘View of Scheveningen Sands’, Cathy soon reveals a beached whale at its heart, concealed after the artist’s death ‘to suit changing sensibilities’ – a conservationist discovery that really happened. Researching historical whale strandings, while preoccupied with her ticking biological clock, Cathy notes: ‘Nature played a cruel and irreversible trick on them. I tried not to linger on the thought that it might also be playing a trick on me.’

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