Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, Susanna Clarke is finally back on the literary scene with Piranesi. It has been 17 years since Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a debut novel that was unlike anything this reviewer has read. Now, in 2020/2021, Clarke is back with a novel just as strange and enchanting – Piranesi.
Piranesi, the main protagonist of the novel, lives in the House. “The beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite” is the mantra by which Piranesi lives. Much of the novel revolves around the House. We are given countless descriptions of beauty and serenity, turmoil and solitude that are to be found in the House. Piranesi wanders the halls of the House, and there he finds anything that a person such as himself might want. There is enough sustenance to make for a meagre meal, there are the Dead to whom he devotes some of his time, and there is the Other. The Other is the only human being that we, the readers, meet for much of the book. The Other, a person of enigma and mystery, had given Piranesi his name, leaves him the occasional present and we find out that he had recruited Piranesi for a scientific experiment that involves Piranesi cataloguing the halls and rooms of the House.
Much of the novel is just this – Piranesi wandering the House, writing in his diary and showing us the beauty and magic of this fantastical place. We get to explore the many halls and rooms, we meet Piranesi’s statues and we also deeply feel his devotion and love for the place. Large part of the book is a character exploration, a study of solitude but not loneliness. The beauty of Clarke’s prose really shines and at least this reader didn’t feel bored for even a second. However, despite the peacefulness and serenity of the place, little by little the story unfolds and the last third of the book is full of action and revelations. Every ten pages or so, there is a meeting between Piranesi and the Other and through these meetings we get to untangle the mystery behind Piranesi’s existence and the House. I am not going to spoil it for it is an incredible journey, but I will say that it is a fascinating study of human nature, curiosity and repercussions. Clarke’s prose really lulls us into a sense of security and tranquillity, and we, just like Piranesi, fall in love with the House for its beauty is indeed immeasurable. However, beneath this beauty and kindness, human ugliness and ambition hide, not unlike our real world.
Although I loved this novel, I think that not everyone will enjoy it. Many a reader might feel restless with the initial lack of action. To those of you who may feel this way, I say persevere and enjoy the writing if you can. Unlike Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Piranesi is much shorter and although it touches on the fantastical, it is a book rooted, for me, in our world. I am keeping my fingers crossed for Susanna Clarke and the Women’s Prize for Fiction because Piranesi is a book of beauty, depth and magic.
Piranesi is out now, published by Bloomsbury