It is one of the most anticipated second novels in contemporary publishing. Sixteen years after the rich, complex and darkly magical Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke’s ground-breaking debut, comes Piranesi.
In the interim Clarke has been living with an undiagnosed chronic illness. Illness cares nothing for the publishing world’s calendars and catalogues, or the literary world’s expectations. Much like the House – the world in which most of Piranesi is set – it creates its own rhythms, its own rules, its own sense of time.
Time as we know it does not matter in Piranesi.
The House is labyrinthine, made of endless halls. Piranesi describes halls that are kilometres away and take him hours to get to, beyond which are halls he has not yet seen. These halls are full of staircases and striking statues, and below, the constantly changing tides of the sea. The only other person who exists, whom Piranesi meets at regular intervals, is called “the Other.”
Piranesi measures time assiduously, and by significant events that have happened in the halls. He writes these down in a series of numbered journals, which therefore become a record of his life and findings. Later on the journals also become significant clues to what the House is, and who Piranesi himself might be.
Piranesi is a singularly compelling protagonist. This is a testament to Clarke’s genius, because although so much of the book features Piranesi by himself, it never reads like navel gazing. Partly this is because the House is really another character in the book, and Piranesi is constantly in dialogue with it. Partly it is that he is an immensely likeable character, generous and curious and gentle. Through his eyes the House is a source of constant wonder and awe.
Although simply being with Piranesi and seeing the House with him is a pleasure, the mystery that unravels as the story moves forward is also deeply affecting. Clarke masterfully pieces together a narrative involving an anthropologist with controversial views, who turns out to be as violent and vicious as any cult leader, especially to a circle of students who are devoted to him. By degrees Piranesi finds out how this is directly tied to his own fate.
Piranesi’s inventiveness speaks to the inventiveness that most of us must exercise, to greater and lesser degrees. This world puts a lot of stock in productivity, where your worth and value is tied to what you produce, how much you produce, and how much you can sell it for. Because I started out by talking about chronic illness, let’s consider that as an example. To continue to simply survive in a world that measures everything in terms of output, the chronically ill person is compelled to use their inventiveness simply to survive. This is also Piranesi’s predicament.
In Piranesi and the Other’s contrasting attitudes to the House, a binary is immediately obvious. These are, fundamentally, two ways to live. The Other’s approach is to place himself as the powerful centre of the universe, which must be manipulated to amass power. Piranesi’s approach consists of open wonder – he has a sacred relationship with his world, full of respect and no desire to harm.
In the ongoing pandemic, people who can afford to work from home are discovering, many for the first time, what chronically ill people have always experienced. Feelings of isolation, being cut off from the wider world, being unable to go out most of the time. In showing us Piranesi’s approach to the world Clarke is also showing us a portal outside of capitalism. Piranesi’s engagement with the House is reminiscent of Mary Oliver’s “Instructions for living a life” – “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”
At first glance Piranesi is nothing like Clarke’s remarkable debut. Ultimately, however, some fundamental similarities become very clear. Clarke has a particular gift for creating worlds full of deep, uncanny magic. It is subtle but powerful, and deeply connected to the natural world. In Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell it was evoked from the landscape of Northern England, the legends of the Fae, the Raven King. In Piranesi too, this otherworldly wild magic simmers throughout. A potent symbol is Piranesi’s favourite statue, of a Faun, evoking Greek and Roman mythology, and the magic of woodlands.
The House itself has been accessed by people skilled in magic – and, like in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, these skilled people often use magic primarily to their own ends. The same question lingers – how should such knowledge be used? The same hubris, too – in both books, magicians go too far in their estimation of themselves. They mistakenly assume they understand the depth and power of the magic involved, and that they can handle it.
And in both books, crucially, imprisonment is a major theme, for we discover that Piranesi is actually a prisoner, tricked by the Other into entering the House, and forgetting his life in this world. (“Piranesi” is both a taunt and an easter egg; it refers to an 18th century Italian artist who drew vast fantastical prisons.)
Piranesi is a story of tremendous heart and power, as layered as it is evocative. It is memorable because it offers so many different ways to think about some of the biggest questions there are – about freedom, loneliness, solitude, and belonging.
Like any great novel, Piranesi does not leave you with a single answer. What it does leave behind are haunting images – of the tides rushing in and receding, of the constellated sky, of wingspan and seashell and worn marble face, of the bones of the beloved dead.
Shreya Ila Anasuya writes fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.
Piranesi, Susanna Clarke, Bloomsbury.