By Susanna Clarke
Bloomsbury Publishing: Sept. 15, 2020
250 pages, $27.00
Susanna Clarke’s second novel, Piranesi, comes 15 years after the phenomenal success of her debut, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, an epic fantasy about two magicians in an alternate Victorian era. Contrasting with that 600-page tome, Piranesi is a compact 250 pages. Yet it too contains an entire world. It is a mind-expanding reading experience. And perhaps just the thing we need to escape our current reality.
Piranesi lives in a House of seemingly endless wings and several levels. The halls are filled with statues, making it feel like a museum. The ocean surges into the lower floors at regular intervals. Piranesi knows the House intimately after exploring it for as long as he can remember. He has no recollection of ever living anywhere else or knowing anything but the House, although he keeps notebooks about his explorations, the first of which begins in December 2011.
Piranesi is not his real name, which he does not know. It is the name given to him by the only other occupant of the House, whom he calls The Other. This person is older and knowledgeable about things Piranesi cannot begin to understand. They meet twice a week for an hour, during which Piranesi attempts to help The Other in his research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. As far as Piranesi can tell, there have only been 15 people in this world, 13 of whom are dead and whose bones he cares for, but whose identities are unknown. It is all very cryptic, both to Piranesi and the reader.
Is it an elaborate metaphor for life, man and his God, the search for meaning? Another alternate reality as in Clarke’s first novel? The first 75 pages are slow going, full of exposition about this hall and that vestibule and one staircase or another and descriptions of various statues. There is little in the way of plot. At times it is a bit like reading Leviticus in between Genesis and Exodus. At this point, I began to have doubts about whether to continue learning about Piranesi’s life and world. But I soldiered on, trusting the genius of Clarke and having faith that all would be revealed.
That was a good thing because that is when Piranesi entered a new phase (a new Hall, as it were). One day during his wanderings, Piranesi encounters an even older gentleman, in an elegant but worn suit, whom he names The Prophet because he seems to know even more than The Other. He soon learns from The Other that this person is evil and to be avoided at all costs as he will try to confuse Piranesi until he loses his mind. The plot thickens as the story becomes a metaphysical mystery. Who is good and who is evil? Was Piranesi wrong to trust The Other? Are there other people in the House whom he has yet to encounter? How can that be? Who are they and why are they here? Did they not know about Piranesi and The Other? At the same time, the pace quickens, and in the last two sections Piranesi becomes a veritable page-turner.
Slowly, in her magical way, Clarke shows Piranesi beginning to make sense of previously unanswerable questions about the House, his presence there, and the identities of the living and the dead. To say any more would be revealing too much, and the primary pleasure of reading Piranesi is the parallel experience of reading about Piranesi and feeling like him as the haze that obscures so much is cleared away. It is a richly satisfying reading experience. The other pleasure in this small yet capacious novel is Clarke’s perfect control of Piranesi’s voice and the novel’s mood. You will become immersed in the world she has created. I was haunted by this world and her intrepid protagonist long after I closed the book. I think Madeline Miller, author of The Song of Achilles and Circe, described the essence of Piranesi best: “It is a deep meditation on the human condition, feeling lost, and being found.”
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