The new novel Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke, best known as the author of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, is a winding, twisting tale leading readers down strange paths and into a mysterious world. Echoing other literary fantasy works, think Borges and Ballard, the book uses the fantastic to evoke not just wonder, but repulsion and hope.
Named for the novel’s central character, Piranesi, we follow our protagonist’s life through his journal entries. He obsessively records even the minutest details of his daily activities. Almost immediately it becomes clear he lives in a world very different from our own. He describes a giant house where the lower floors are awash with waters that issue from an unknown source and tides that lift them to dangerous heights.
As Piranesi describes his subsistence living; fishing from the tidal pools, drying kelp for fires, and collecting rain water in plastic containers, we begin to wonder where exactly he is and what he’s doing there. As his descriptions become more detailed, including the statues and birds who populate the various levels and wings of the house and the 13 skeletons he has found scattered through out, we realize he’s almost completely alone.
If it wasn’t for the regular visits, twice weekly for short periods, by the one Piranesi refers to as “The Other”, he would have no human contact whatsoever. Perhaps it’s the solitude, or something else, but he has developed strange quirks in his speech and his memory is either selective or failing. For when he looks back through his journals he discovers discrepancies he can’t explain.
When we enter the world Piranesi is set in, something is changing. Others, beside The Other, are starting to show up in the house. The Other says that they are a danger to Piranesi, and they will either seek to drive him mad or hurt him. Even the messages they might leave are dangerous and he shouldn’t read them.
People who are expecting something along the lines of the flamboyancy found in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell will be surprised at the simplicity and austerity of the writing displayed by Clarke in Piranesi. However, the book is far better for it. It is a beautiful and haunting tale that is wonderful exploration of what the mind will do when isolated.
At first it’s easy to think Piranesi might have created the labyrinth of the House in his own mind as a means of escaping some past trauma, but the truth turns out to be far more sinister and spectacular. Magic plays a role, not in the same way as Clarke’s previous book, but it does play an integral role.
Readers will also delight in discovering references to various other works that could have been drawn from anyone’s head. One of the statues described in the book is a homage to C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and the entrance to The House – a labyrinth – is guarded by a statue of multiple Minotaurs.
The book, and its title, are also inspired by the 18th century Italian artist and architect Giovanni Battista Piranesi. While best known for his etchings of Rome and depictions of its classical heritage, he’s also known for a series of prints of vast underground vaults with stairs and populated by statues of humans and animals called “Imaginary Prisons”. Look at any of these images and you can see how they inspired Clarke.
Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke is a fantasy novel of a different type. Brilliant in its loving descriptions of its protagonist it will both break your heart for the loss it expresses and revive you with the hope it implies.