Sixteen years after the publication of her breakout novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke’s second novel has arrived. The new novel, Piranesi, bears a family resemblance to its predecessor, sharing its unique creative vision and a detailed approach to the fantastic. Though these features appear in a very different time and place, their effects are still magical.
In Piranesi, we meet our main character as he fights to survive a violent and dangerous confluence of tides within his home. There is no one to help him, as he is alone in his world, the House.
The House is a vast labyrinth in the form of a limitless white marble temple, its colossal halls linked by unending staircases, doorways, and vestibules. Within the halls are myriad statues, some colossal in size, featuring figures in an infinite variety of forms: a woman carrying a beehive, a young boy playing the cymbals, an angel caught on a rosebush, an elephant carrying a castle. Clouds and mist shroud the highest of the House’s three levels, while the sea surges through the halls of its lowest level, occasionally causing massive, sudden floods when the tides converge.
Our main character has lived on the House’s middle level for six years, which marks the beginning of his memory. He is called “Piranesi” by his sole living companion, the Other. While he reveres the Other and is glad for his company, Piranesi has only limited interactions with him, and after their twice-weekly meetings the Other mysteriously disappears to “his own halls,” leaving Piranesi to fend for himself.
Piranesi has learned how to survive in the House, navigating its dangers and getting the food and materials he needs from the sea in its Drowned Halls. But when his world collides with another, he is shaken by revelation and unprepared for the choice that will present itself after the tides converge again.
Though the book’s setting is stark and its characters initially few, Clarke nevertheless finds a way to create an endearing, multidimensional character in Piranesi. We come to know him through his journal entries, which reveal both who he is and how he has created a full and meaningful life for himself in the lonely labyrinth. The journal shows his sharp mind and his devotion to science and reason, as it contains orderly records of the data he has collected in his explorations of the House: detailed notes about each hall, a catalogue of statues, a table of tides.
We see his kindness in the way he cares for the birds he shares the House with, and his compassion in the way he treats the human remains he has found within it:
“I visit all the Dead, but particularly the Folded-Up Child. I bring them food, water and water lilies from the Drowned Halls. I speak to them, telling them what I have been doing and I describe any Wonders that I have seen in the House. In this way they know they are not alone.”
In his relationship with the Other, we see his empathy and tolerance, as he works to see the best in the Other despite the dismissive, abusive treatment he receives from him.
But while its main character is innocent and even naive at times in his understanding of human nature, Piranesi is no simplistic Bildungsroman, and its main character is no unformed novice. From the beginning, he has principles, a strong sense of logic, and a deep confidence in his own mind.
He also has a deep confidence in the House, seeing it as a parent and protector despite the hardships it causes. Clarke deftly creates a bifurcated perception of the House, allowing us to see it from both Piranesi’s worshipful eyes and also from a more detached perspective. Her descriptions at once evoke a sense of the House’s beauty and a sense of uneasy alienation that comes from its daunting size, its eerie emptiness, and the darkness it holds both in the anguished features of some of its statues and in the depths of its Drowned Halls.
Clarke’s mesmerizing worldbuilding is particularly impressive in that it creates a concrete sense of such an esoteric place without diminishing its mystery. Toward the end of the book I began to think that I could find my way through the House with as much confidence as Piranesi himself.
When the story eventually pulls us from the marble halls and plunges us into the human conflicts and machinations that reveal Piranesi’s origin, the contrast is jarring but revealing. Details snap into place as we learn how he came to live in the House, and we, alongside Piranesi, begin to see new dimensions of his connections with the House, the Other, and himself. The book’s ending and Piranesi’s fate are both poignant and satisfying, a thought-provoking exploration of our layered selves and a moving parable about mental health.
By Susanna Clarke
Published September 15, 2020
Dana is a writer and editor living in Chicago.