If you’re dauted by the idea of Piranesi because Susanna Clarke’s other major novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell rolls in at just over a solid thousand pages, you can relax. By her standards, this is a novella and, unsurprisingly, a very very good one. Clarke creates my favorite kind of worlds, the ones just a degree or two separate from ours, and Piranesi is another master class.
Piranesi lives in a large house he has never been able to fully explore, but that he documents thoroughly because it always has something new to teach him. There are oceans in the lower floors and clouds in the upper and there are always new rooms and pathways and statues. He knows it very very well and he is always learning more. He loves his house, and he is only of the only living people in his house. There is the Other, with whom he communicates on a regular schedule, but the Other has always seemed a little odd in ways that Piranesi credits to his intelligence as he searches for a Great and Secret Knowledge. The house is Piranesi’s whole world but when he encounters a third living person, he has to reckon with it not being the whole world for everyone.
Clarke crafts entire worlds out of myth and it’s beautiful to watch. There’s also a certain simplicity here – after all, for most of the book, the only speaking characters are Piranesi and the Other. That’s it. It’s a book about exploration and the drive to learn and to understand, for understanding’s sake. It’s truly wonderful.