‘Piranesi’ by Susanna Clarke
Released only four months ago, Susanna Clarke’s novel, Piranesi, is the long-awaited follow-up to her 2004 debut bestseller, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. It’s a far shorter tale than its predecessor, and a fantastically strange one at that.
With obvious inspiration taken from the famous Imaginary Prisons series of etchings by 18th-century Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi, this book tells the story of a character named, you guessed it, Piranesi — an intensely earnest and innocent-minded man living in an infinitely sprawling, labyrinthine place he simply calls the House, where there exist only clouds in the topmost halls and endless seas filling the lower ones, and in between, mazes of staircases, pillars, and an astonishing number of marble statues, each as unique as the last.
There have been many descriptions written about the book, and Brian Phillips of The Ringer wrote my favorite one:
Piranesi purports to be the scientific journal of its protagonist, the notebook where he keeps a record of his explorations throughout the House (always capitalized in the novel, like many other words the protagonist deems significant). He goes by “Piranesi” because that is the name given to him by the only other person in the House—who is also, so far as he knows, the only other living person in existence. This well-dressed, elderly man, whom he calls the Other, meets with Piranesi twice a week to discuss the search for the Great and Secret Knowledge, a mysterious power that the Other believes he can obtain from the House.
Unlike the Other, who never ventures beyond a small area, Piranesi loves the House. He views it with religious adoration; he considers himself its beloved child. But almost immediately, troubling mysteries begin to proliferate. Where does the Other disappear to between their meetings? How, when Piranesi reveals that his shoes have disintegrated and he must travel through the house slowly because he is barefoot, does the Other manage to produce a brand-new pair of athletic shoes? Piranesi looks back over his journals and discovers that he has more of them than he remembers, and bafflingly, that the dating system he uses changes midway through. He currently dates his journals with sensible mnemonics like “the year the Albatross came to the South-Western Halls”; but once, for some reason he cannot remember, he dated them with numbers like “2011” and “2012.” The old journals are full of names he doesn’t recognize—a particularly puzzling development, since [to his knowledge] only 15 people have ever existed in the world—and references to concepts he dimly understands without knowing how, concepts like “university” and “museum” and “journalist.” Has he lost his memory? He thinks perhaps that he was previously insane, though he is sure he is sane now.
As the story unfolds, Piranesi gets closer and closer to the sinister truth about the Other and of this bizarre world he inhabits…and this is where I stop talking about it, because I don’t want to give anything else away. Instead, I highly recommend you read this strangely fascinating and unpredictable novel for yourself and simply enjoy the ride.
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