Welcome to the Great Indoors: A Review of Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi

The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; it’s Kindness infinite.

Readers to their books, like parents to children, often find it difficult (and suspect it immoral) to pick favourites. It is not a dilemma that vexes me because I am blessed with clarity in this aspect. In the sprawling forest of my literary preferences, one tree towers so high above the foliage that none can hope to equal it. That tree is Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and it seems to me that I have not stopped searching to recapture that feeling of numinous wonder, of a grand and vast world right at the edges of our minds, that Ms Clarke’s writing gave me. I read it in 2005, and in the past 15 years, my search was one beset with disappointment only partially salved by my annual reread of her book.

Then, like a long-lost prophet who had returned like a thief in the night with new revelations, Ms Clarke presents us her second novel titled simply, Piranesi. I know I am laying it on thick but if it isn’t clear by now, my reverence for this woman approximates religious fanaticism. If other authors are unable to help me regain that bliss that Susanna Clarke bestowed upon me, perhaps Ms Clarke herself can?

Piranesi (2020) by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi is about a vast and gothic House made up of multiple levels and endless halls. In every hall, there are statues of every shape and subject, none repeating, and some are massive in proportions. Are these giant statues or statues of giants? Were they sculpted or are they the petrified remains of actual living things? There is an ocean that would come in and out of the lower halls, and bring with it the bounties of the sea, like mussels, fish, seaweed, and crustaceans which sustains a man called Piranesi—a man who wanders the House’s halls in worshipful awe, who keeps meticulous notes of the rise and fall of the tides and the weather, cares for the bony remains of the dead, and reads the birds which nest within. There is only one other person in the House, and Piranesi calls him The Other. They would meet twice a week to discuss their research and exploration of the House, because The Other is convinced that the House hides the secret to arcane powers (what those powers are he cannot say for certain). Thusly, the years are spent in such scholarly idyll.

Until one day, Piranesi discovers evidence that he and The Other are not the only people in the House. There is a third.

Piranesi is not, as what we had hoped, that fabled sequel to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell which Ms Clarke announced in the misty prehistory of 2004. However, it is a work that obsessively recalls her oeuvre. There is, in Piranesi, as there were in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, two scholars working together to unlock the secrets of magic. There is baroque architecture that had fallen into dereliction and disrepair but retains still an otherworldly beauty. There are birds which fly freely between worlds. There is the idea that the key to cryptic supernatural knowledge lies in a simple adjustment of one’s state of mind. And there is Aesopian comeuppance that visits any man who is proud enough to believe they can domesticate forces which are far older and wilder than they are.

Consider this quote from Piranesi,

… the Ancients had a different way of relating to the world, that they experienced it as something that interacted with them. When they observed the world, the world observed them back. If, for example, they travelled in a boat on a river, then the river was in some way aware of carrying them on its back and had in fact agreed to it. When they looked up to the stars, the constellations are not simply patterns enabling them to organise what they saw, they were vehicles of meaning, a never-ending flow of information. The world was constantly speaking to Ancient Man.

Now this line from Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell,

He understood for the first time that the world is not dumb at all, but merely waiting for someone to speak to it in a language it understands.

In fact, even the name “Piranesi” was visited by Ms Clarke in earlier works. He was mentioned in passing in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell along with Palladio. Later, it appeared again in her work of short fiction entitled Tom Brightwind or How the Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby in her 2006 The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories (which shares the same England as Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell). In that story, the titular bridge’s design at Thoresby was copied from one of Giambattista Piranesi’s famous etchings in Carceri d’invenzione. The Italian artist’s “atmospheric prisons” is probably what Ms Clarke is thinking of when she dreamed up the mysterious sea-battered labyrinth in her latest book. I wonder if she had read Mr Danielewski’s House of Leaves, which is a larger, darker work compared to Piranesi but nevertheless, features a similarly uncanny and infinite labyrinth.

Piranesi is narrated in the first person by its eponymous protagonist, a person with seemingly bottomless reserves of naivete, curiousity, and compassion. It is a pleasure to inhabit his mind for 250 pages and I would happily do so for 250 more just following him around as he attends to his Crusoe-esque survival chores, and his exploration of the House. I welcome the return of Ms Clarke’s wry sense of humour and I also see that she is up to her old tricks of manufacturing ersatz scholarly publications to lend depth to her world. What I prize most, that thing which nourishes me when I read Ms Clarke’s writing, is her ability to impart a sense of unreality to me—like the world is replete with doors thrown open and swinging freely on their hinges, and strange winds are blowing in. Contemporary fantasy is a lot more awake (or “woke”) these days in interrogating real life sociopolitical matters, and I absolutely believe it is a beneficial movement in the genre—but sometimes, I just need something unfettered to our worldly issues. Sometimes I just want to escape with characters to a place that bears little resemblance to our own, and follow them as they focus all their efforts in solving problems that only exist between the pages. Sometimes, I just want to dream.

And that is what fantasy, and reading fantasy means to me. What is a dreary prison for some is a boundless realm for me, ripe for exploration and study. It is a place where I can shed my self, be unburdened of my memories and worries, and be this newborn mind hungry to learn, and eager to accept any impossibility. Is this not what the House represents?

For all of this, I love Piranesi. I love the House, and I love dreaming myself there. It made me miss being a child at the beach exploring tide pools, believing with all my child’s heart that every unusual rock, shell or scuttling creature I discover to be new to science. While Ms Clarke does provide us with some answers to the mysteries surrounding the House, she wisely left most of it to steep in our imagination. Due to its numerous parallels to Ms Clarke’s prior novel, I have personally come to think of Piranesi as JSMN-lite. It is no where near as rich and deep, but I think those who found Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell to be impenetrable would find Piranesi to be a kinder, less punishing experience. They would celebrate that Piranesi is only a quarter of the length of her previous book, while I lament it. I read it in one sitting and here I am, back in my body and all out of Susanna Clarke again.

P.S. Lucy and Mr Tumnus have a cameo in this book. Blink and you’ll miss it.

P.P.S. Special thanks to the lovely ladies over at the Two Book Nerds Talking podcast for passing this ARC of Piranesi to me! I pre-ordered the book way back, but they know I’ll take any chance to read it early. The book comes out on 15th September 2020.

Rating: 4.5/5 Naga Pearls

If you like what you are reading, maybe you can Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com to keep this Naga caffeinated!

Published by A Naga of the Nusantara

A Naga is a divine dragon from Eastern Hindu-Buddhist tradition. The Nusantara is made up of nusa (island) and antara (between) and describes the Southeast Asian archipelago that includes Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea. This particular Naga is Malaysian, born and bred. He loves reading and hoarding books, and enjoys bothering humans with what he thinks of them.

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