Piranesi by Susanna Clarke overview – byzantine and beguiling | Fiction
P.iranesi lives in the house. He knows the house very well, each of its 7,678 halls. He also knows the number of those who have ever existed: 15. Of these, Piranesi believes that only himself and “the other” are still alive. Piranesi is around 30 years old, the other almost twice his age. Piranesi knows the patterns of the tides that move through the house, sweeping everything in front of them, pouring over the statues and ornaments, storming stairs and over the marble halls and vestibules of the house. Piranesi is a book with imaginary worlds and unpredictable capitalizations, with mysteries and murder and university life.
For those of us who had been eagerly awaiting a new Susanna Clarke after Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell in 2004, it was a pretty old hiatus. I read this great debut when my wife was pregnant with our son. Now that his successor is out, he’s reading Jonathan Strange. Clarke has written powerfully about the illness that has kept her from writing for the past several years, often putting her to bed in the house she shares with her husband. This limitation seems to have been one of the inspirations for the fantastic setting of Piranesi, in which the hero of the same name sees himself banished into a labyrinthine world that apart from meeting the other twice a week is deprived of human contact.
He feeds on fishing and foraging for seaweed and has developed a form of religion in which he honors the 13 dead
This sense of isolation has taken on a new relevance and topicality with the coronavirus lockdowns, but what is interesting about the world of the house is that it is both prison and paradise for the (seemingly) uncomplicated and self-sufficient Piranesi. He feeds on fishing and foraging for algae and has created a form of religion in which he honors the 13 dead whose relics are distributed in the halls of the house. He loves his home (although he has no memory of the world he lived in before): “The beauty of the home is immeasurable; his goodness infinite. “
As we learn more of the intricate explanation for the existence of this parallel realm, we understand it as a metaphor for the alternate universe we all inhabit in our minds, but which is particularly vivid and complex for those with a learned and academic bias. The Byzantine complexity of the house reflects the fact that it represents a “distributive world” that was “created by ideas flowing out of another world”. We are introduced to a renegade professor at the University of Manchester, Laurence Arne-Sayles, whose “great experiment” involves attempting to travel between worlds, happily sacrificing a number of his student acolytes. In the further course of the book, we come closer to clearing up his central riddle: Who is Piranesi and how did he come to be trapped in the house?
This is a much shorter book than Jonathan Strange, but its many layers and complex metaphysics make for a reading experience that feels big on the head. It reminded me repeatedly of one of the books that enlightened my childhood – Mervyn Peakes Gormenghast. It has the same great imagination, the same Gothic complexity, and in the same way it creates a world that feels real for all its fantastic strangeness. The wait for Piranesi was worth it: the most wonderful book I have read in years.
• Piranesi by Susanna Clarke is published by Bloomsbury (£ 14.99). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK P&P over £ 15