Susanna Clarke’s Jane Austen-era historical fantasy novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel is one of my favorite books. I’ve given it away 10 or 12 times over the years as I’ve found used or remaindered copies. Clarke has had some real health problems in the interim sixteen years since that book’s publication, and was unable to do the historical research required for a follow up. Fortunately, she got well enough to write recently. Piranesi, while it couldn’t be more different from Strange and Norrell in some ways, is equally good, maybe even better (or at least closer to the center of my taste). It was worth every second of the decade and a half wait. The closest I can come to describing it is that it is almost as if CS Lewis wrote House of Leaves. That is an apt, if jarring comparison and somewhat reductive one.
The title character got his nickname from the Other, the only other living human in his world. The name is a reference to the Italian print maker obsessed with Labyrinths. Piranesi lives in a house that is also a world. There are a seemingly endless series of connected classical buildings. There are four distinct seas complete with their own tidal systems in the lower halls and rain and fog in the upper. Piranesi does not know his true identity, and lives a sort of contemplative life cataloging the statues that line the halls and fishing in the lower seas to feed himself. He understands some things that clearly come from our world, but the house is the only reality he knows. To say much more would venture into spoiler territory.
Clarke builds an incredibly evocative mythic atmosphere. It is both contemplative and awe inspiring. The statues in the halls have significance, but are often ambiguous (though at least in one case, a clear reference which doubles as a subtle clue to what is happening). When I first heard the book described, I expected more horror than is present. There is horror, but it is not the primary mood. As Piranesi gradually discovers what is happening Clarke generates real tension without damaging the wonder of the House that is Piranesi’s world. And, as David Mitchell’s blurb says, the ending is pitch perfect. I would never have anticipated this as a followup to Strange and Norrell, but as I’ve sat with it for a couple of days I really think I may like it more. Rereading will be the tell.
Handful Of Exceptions And Everything Else 2020 15/35