I didn’t know Susanna Clarke had a new novel until I spotted it on a trip to my favorite local bookstore. So many of us read and loved Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, with its elaborate plot, beautifully crafted characters, and Dickensian story-telling, I wondered how her new novel, so slim, would compare. Piranesi is as different from Jonathan Strange as it is equally wonderful.
Piranesi lives in a house with many rooms, great halls, long corridors, and labyrinths. The lower level provides him with sustenance in the form of fish; the upper level teems with clouds; the middle level boasts statuary. Tides occasionally flood the halls, gushing up staircases. The span of the house seems infinite; at least, Piranesi hasn’t been to every room yet, but he is intent on learning everything he can. For him, it is “The World.”
There is only one other person living in the house with Piranesi, “The Other.” Piranesi and The Other meet twice a week, with The Other assigning Piranesi tasks to help him on the quest for “A Great and Secret Knowledge.” While no one else lives in the house, Piranesi has found bones amounting to 13 other individuals who may have once lived there. He eventually learns of two other people who may be visiting the house, and whom The Other warns him to avoid: The Prophet, and a mysterious enemy (#16).
This is the type of novel that you really have to read for yourself, and you will most likely either love it or hate it. For the first half, the reader wonders about the house: what is it, where is it, what does it represent? That “not knowing” portion of the novel is so lovely, one can wrap oneself up in the discovery as Piranesi describes life in the house: “The Lower Halls are full of sea creatures and vegetation, many of them very beautiful and very strange. The Tides themselves are full of movement and power so that, while they may not be exactly alive, neither are they not alive. In the Middle Halls are birds and men. The droppings are signs of Life!” Piranesi reveres the house in a way The Other does not. He also exudes kindness, another quality The Other notably lacks. At one point, Piranesi lists the gifts that The Other has given him, including new shoes, a sandwich, and other miscellaneous items. Piranesi, as innocent as he is, wonders why the house supplies The Other with such bounty when he (Piranesi) has to fend for himself; he ultimately decides it must be because The Other is not as skilled at survival. As a reader, I not only liked Piranesi, I felt protective of him, wanting to shield him against the inevitable hurt that would occur when he realizes The Other is not his friend.
Eventually the reader learns the startling truth about who Piranesi is, who The Other is, and how they came to be in the house. Then a flood of questions roils through the reader’s mind the way the tides flood the halls of Piranesi’s home. What is real? What is truth? How does knowledge change you? Once changed, can you go back to being the same person you were before?
I will be pondering this book for some time; no doubt I’ll need to re-read it to more completely wrap my head around what I think it means. This book is as lovely and terrible as being lost in a labyrinth which, as one character notes, is “A symbol of the mingled glory and horror of existence. No one gets out alive.”