Piranesi (2020) – Susanna Clarke

Title:Piranesi
Author:Susanna Clarke
Publisher/s:Bloomsbury/Jonathan Ball Publishers
Date published:2020
Star Rating:⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Disclaimer:Jonathan Ball Publishers kindly sent me a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review

“The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; it’s Kindness infinite.”

Piranesi is the kind of novel that appears but once in a while, and when we read said novel we know from the first page that what we are experiencing is something epically unique. The novel does not need to be extremely profound, nor does it need to be as long and winding as the classics of old. Piranesi is certainly not the latter, but perhaps it is the former. So brief and yet so masterful a story, I believe Clarke’s first novel in over a decade will become an instant classic.

Piranesi lives inside a House that is nothing short of his entire universe. In this House there are winding passages and long halls, and vestibules that stand tall, and crashing waves that fill parts of the house in rooms filled with silence. Apart from the multitude of statues that fill the House, and the eerie presence of the bones of the unknown dead, Piranesi lives alone. He is visited twice a week at the same exact time on Tuesdays and Fridays by a man known only to our protagonist as The Other. The Other is a man who wears nothing but a suit and a contemptuous look, and asks detailed questions about the House and its many halls. Sometimes, ever so rarely he will present Piranesi with gifts such a plastic bowls, bottles of vitamins and a new pair of shoes. He has told Piranesi that they are doing important research and that all of this work will bring them closer to their ultimate goal of discovering the Great and Secret Knowledge. A little vague? It doesn’t really help that Piranesi seems content to simply follow instructions and live out his measly existence in a labyrinth of a house that seems to stretch out into eternity.

Piranesi’s simple existence within the house consists of fishing for his supper, and consuming dried seaweed. He brings offerings of his simple food to the Dead, and collects drinking water in the plastic bowls that he places beneath the many statues. Piranesi often communicates with the statues, and in their own way they tell a story of the outside world, a place that does not exist for our protagonist. If anything the most perfect word, other than innocent, to describe Piranesi, is meticulous. As the novel takes the form of Piranesi’s diary entries, it is only through Piranesi’s limited perspective that we learn to traverse the many hallways and pass the many vestibules such as Piranesi has meticulously mapped them. In the House nothing else exists other than Piranesi and this ancient space that is occasionally touched by the modern world with The Other’s presence and his gifts. The House which is very much a labyrinth of sorts could in many ways be likened to a puzzle aching to be solved, whether we see the House as real or not.

Piranesi is unaware as to how long he has been in the House. All he knows is that something is very wrong with his previous journal entries, and that there might be someone other than the Other watching him from inside the House. Is Piranesi mad? Has he perhaps imagined the House? Who is the Other? Who is the unknown presence referred to only as ’16’ whose presence is felt within the House? Who is Piranesi?

“And You. Who are You? Who is it that I am writing for? Are You a traveller who has cheated Tides and crossed Broken Floors and Derelict stairs to reach these Halls? Or are You perhaps someone who inhabits my own Halls long after I am dead?”

Clarke’s novel is as much a collection of questions, as it is a blend of prose that, like the waves that continuously crash against the walls of this ancient space, laps against our subconscious mind as smoothly as water. As witnesses to the devastating and somewhat tragic life of a man who thinks nothing of spending a lifetime in a space only he inhabits, it is often frustrating that the reader is unable to alter the protagonist’s deafening solitude. As Piranesi walks through the House, and writes in his journal and speaks to the birds that fly among the Young Boy playing the Cymbals or the Faun or the Woman carrying a Beehive, one is inclined to wish for more than just echoes and dust for our hero. The more Piranesi maps out his world so does it start to unravel, and his own words are no longer reliable and the House is no longer safe – whether it be from a great Flood or from other people that possibly wish him harm.

Clarke’s previous novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (2004) is all about magic, and the notion of bringing the ancient back to the modern world. In Piranesi it is uncertain whether madness or indeed even magic are solely responsible for Piranesi’s fate. Perhaps it is neither, and the strange names he finds written in his journals are the ones responsible for his lonely life – the names of great thinkers, and the names of those who seem to have disappeared. Who is responsible for these entries if Piranesi claims never to have written them?

Nevertheless it is not Piranesi’s ending that is the heart of this story, but his beginning and his middle that matter the most, and it is this path that we the reader shall follow, mapped out beautifully and carefully by a man who names the dead and counts the stars.

Read Meredith Mara’s review:

Piranesi by Suzanna Clarke Review

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