This is a far shorter book than Jonathan Strange, but its many layers and complex metaphysics make for a reading experience that feels large in the mind. It reminded me repeatedly of one of the books that lit up my childhood – Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast. It has the same vast imaginative reach, the same gothic intricacy, and it does the same thing of creating a world that feels none the less real for all its fantastical strangeness. Piranesi was worth waiting for: the most gloriously peculiar book I’ve read in years.
Piranesi is a publishing event, therefore. Austere and classical, it has no fairies but plenty of magic. The title character lives secluded in a mansion of dizzying perspectival queasiness. He has never reached its limits; with its uncountable series of enfilades, his adored ‘House’ is impossibly extensive, many kilometres long, periodically washed by tides and invaded by seabirds. Clouds occasionally pass through its vast halls. Piranesi eats nourishing soups made of seaweed and mussels, and goes fishing, perched on the head or shoulders of one of the many neoclassical statues emerging from the deep.
The result is a remarkable feat, not just of craft but of reinvention. Far from seeming burdened by her legacy, the Susanna Clarke we encounter here might be an unusually gifted newcomer unacquainted with her namesake’s work. If there is a strand of continuity in this elegant and singular novel, it is in its central preoccupation with the nature of fantasy itself. It remains a potent force, but one that can leave us – like Goethe among the ruins – forever disappointed by what is real.
It's a gently comic, thoroughly beguiling read, although in spite of a late twist that sheds new light on Piranesi's world, Clarke's plot never quite persuaded me. However, the 'House' — its upper rooms lost in clouds, its lower chambers drowned by the sea — will haunt my dreams.
For the first 80 pages, I was enchanted by the exquisitely weird world Clarke conjures but also, I confess, utterly mystified as to what was going on. The last time I was so disorientated by a novel I was 10 years old and trying to make sense of Red Shift, Alan Garner’s 1973 time-shifting fantasy, a book that coincidentally shares a number of its deeper themes with this one. Having lured us into the maze, Clarke gradually ramps up clues that all is not as it seems, and we slowly begin to suspect that Piranesi’s record of the world he inhabits might be less reliable than he believes.
But some big questions go unanswered: is this house real and, if so, how can it be? Or are we inside Piranesi’s mind? Without these footholds, the novel becomes a fever dream — disorientating, engrossing, persistently strange. In an epigraph, Clarke quotes CS Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, another fantasy about the discovery of a secret world. There are also nods to Narnia, but, unlike Lewis, Clarke offers no schema or unifying thesis. Piranesi remains, therefore, a somewhat vague exploration of the human condition — of the necessity of accepting pain, mystery, solitude and limitations, and of the healing power of memory, love, kindness and tolerance. Readers hoping for answers will remain confounded. Yet despite, or perhaps because of, these lingering conundrums, it burrows into the subconscious, throwing out puzzles long after the final page. It may not be satisfying, but it is brilliantly singular, and that may be enough.
The only way in which Piranesi falls short of its predecessor is length; it spans a pleasingly concise 245 pages. As a work of fiction, it’s spectacular; an irresistibly unspooling mystery set in a world of original strangeness, revealing a set of ideas that will stay lodged in your head long after you’ve finished reading. It’s written as a diary, but an exceedingly odd one, where the dates match no recognisable system. The first entry is for “the first day of the fifth month of the year the albatross came to the south-western halls”.... Clarke has the same skill Flann O’Brien poured into The Third Policeman for making insane worlds feel as solid as our own. After all that time, she has produced a second novel that is close to perfect.
Her new novel, Piranesi, is quite different. All of the strengths of Clarke’s writing are to be found here, and none of its flaws. The world that she depicts in this surprisingly slim book is highly distinctive yet altogether believable. At the outset we find ourselves, without explanation, in an impossibly vast house, occupied by wild animals and statues of the most curious sort, and with an ocean surging in the basement levels. The sole human figure in this desolate but rather beautiful place is Piranesi himself, who appears at first to be an odd, simple soul. The narration is his, written in a naive style: ‘Since the World began it is certain that there have existed fifteen people. Possibly there have been more; but I am a scientist and must proceed according to the evidence.’