Susanna Clarke's debut novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, took the world by storm when it came out in 2004. The 900-page magical Victorian epic was swiftly followed by a short story collection, The Ladies of Grace Adieu, which was set in the same universe. A TV adaptation of the book came out in 2015—but nothing new came from Clarke herself.
The story goes that Clarke collapsed by exhaustion following her manic book tour to promote her unexpected bestseller. Afterwards, she was diagnosed with chronic pain, unable to work for more than a few hours a day from her home in the British country side.
I did not know any of this context when I read her new book, Piranesi (in all honesty, Jonathan Strange is one of those books that my wife and I both own and yet neither one of us has actually read it yet, oops). But the 16-year journey from the sprawling, footnoted world of Jonathan Strange to the roughly 250 page conciseness of Piranesi certainly makes sense, now that I do know it.
Piranesi tells the story of a man who who lives in a House which is also The World. In the lower floors, there is water; on the upper levels, there are clouds. And in between and all around are an endless labyrinth of neoclassical Roman-esque hallways filled with statues. There is no one else in the House (or the World) except for a man known as the Other — who teasingly refers to our narrator as "Piranesi" — and 14 sets of bones. The book is epistolary form, as Piranesi dates his journals with timestamps like "The first day of the fifth month in the year the albatross came to the southwestern halls," and attempts to explain his mapping strategies for such things as the Ninth Vestibule of the Third Northwestern Hall. Yet, despite this seemingly-convoluted language, there's an endearing naivety to Piranesi, who gains an almost spiritual sense of specialness from his solitude in the House. As he often says, "The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite."
Of course, to some readers, seeing Randomly Capitalized Words and descriptions such as "The third day of the sixth month in the year the albatross came to the third southwestern hall" might be off-putting. And in the hands of a lesser writer, the narrator's Tabula Rasa nature might come off as the annoying gimmick of an undergrad trying to seem deep in their creative writing elective course. But Clarke is no lesser writer. She deftly paints this strange, quiet world of simplicity…and very strategically leads you to question every part of it. You may quickly find yourself wondering, "Wait … why does Piranesi use such confusing date terminology, but also knows that the Other comes to see him every Tuesday and Friday? How does he know what a 'Tuesday' or a 'Friday' is in this bizarro world?!" Within a few pages, Piranesi even reveals a familiarity with certain brands of modern biscuit boxes—yet he still insists that the House is the only World he has ever known. Two pages later, he explains his convoluted dating methodology in a way that clearly reveals that something is wrong. But Piranesi himself doesn't seem to notice his own incongruity.
Part of the compelling brilliance of Piranesi is that Clarke does not let her cutesy crypticness carry on for too long before making the reader start to question it. Piranesi himself is not an unreliable narrator, per se. His sweetness, earnestness, and curiosity are immediately laid bare, compelling the reader to trust him. But along with that trust comes the unignorable fact that there are things that Piranesi simply does not know—and which, therefore, the reader does not know. He is not a lying or deceptive narrator; his questions and curiosities are often the same ones plaguing the reader, and this is what carries you through the horrifying mystery behind the story.
It's difficult to describe this strange little book with any more detail, lest I give things away. And while I'm not typically a spoiler-averse person, the mystery and discovery of Piranesi is a huge part of the experience. There's a reason the narrator is such a blank slate, and Clarke doles out the details in a way that's simultaneously quiet and subtle, and also quite thrilling. She's made a page-turner from a story that mostly about one guy alone in what's basically a fantastical version of the Louvre-as-Minotaur-Labyrinth that somehow exists outside of, well, everything.
This isn't to say that Piranesi is a complete departure from Clarke's work on Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. There's still a fascination with Western classicalism; there's still magic; and indeed, there are still a pair of arrogant men hoarding their mystical knowledge. But not in the way you might expect. And that reveal is part of the wonder of the book.
What's perhaps the book's most impressive feat is how Clarke creates such a quiet, contemplative atmosphere, even with the clearly foreboding sense of dread that emanates from the very early presence of all those skeletons. There's both a sweetness, and a horror, in Piranesi's solitude. Perhaps that's how Clarke herself has felt as she's dealt with her chronic pain, and the looming shadow of her earlier success; but it also makes the book feel painfully relevant to life in COVID quarantine. For many of us, our lives have been strangely quiet over the last year. The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite. But that quiet is full of disquietude, too. Like Piranesi, we long to stay in the simplicity, even as we long for an escape.
Piranesi [Susanna Clarke]