Published by Bloomsbury, 2020 | Fiction
Piranesi’s unusual set up takes a little time to grapple with.
A few pages in, you come to understand that you’ve entered an unfamiliar world, recorded through a series of journal entries penned by the titular narrator, Piranesi - and the unfolding mystery becomes hypnotic.
Although his language is fairly austere (and with Unpredictable Capitalisation), the imagery conjured of his surroundings - which he calls the House - is striking.
The House is made up of thousands of huge halls and vestibules, connected by a vast maze of courtyards and staircases, all lined with an array of great statues. He wanders alone through this world, sustaining himself with the meagre fish he catches from tidal seawater which surges through the lower halls. The upper halls are filled with clouds.
Piranesi’s only constant companions are birds, including a giant albatross and its mate, whose arrival was so startling it became a marker for Piranesi to measure time - instead of using a traditional date for each journal entry, he labels them as successive days ”in the year the Albatross came to the South-Western Halls“.
In another curious layer, Piranesi receives weekly visits from an older man, known as “the Other” - the only living human in Piranesi’s sphere of existence - who seems fixated on a quest to find “a Great and Secret Knowledge” that he believes is hidden in the House.
Their interactions together are quite transactional, as the Other relies on Piranesi for information about the House, in return for the occasional gift - like a pair of shoes, or a packet of multivitamins.
Despite the harshness of his solitary life, Piranesi seems oddly content. He reveres the halls, noting with fervour: “The beauty of the House is Immeasurable: its Kindness Infinite.”
As the story gathers pace, Piranesi’s equanimity with his lot begins to seem unsettling, the Other’s behaviour increasingly sinister, and it becomes apparent that not all is as it seems.
We learn even Piranesi’s name is not his. Rather it’s a nickname given to him by the Other, although the moniker’s allusion was lost on the narrator, just as his birth name had also gone from his memory. (As an aside, Susanna Clarke lets the reader discover for themselves the name Piranesi belonged to an eighteenth century engraver celebrated for intricate etchings of imaginary prisons - images which the author has acknowledged in media interviews as having fascinated her for decades.)
What’s more unsettling is that despite Piranesi’s belief that the House is the only world he’s ever known, he recognises things he shouldn’t if that were true. He easily names the hundreds of giant statues - from the young boys playing the cymbals and elephants carrying a castle, to two kings playing chess and horned giants representing ”endeavour and the struggle against wretched fate“.
These mythological and literary references do not belong in Piranesi’s world, so how could he know them unless he’s experienced more than he remembers, perhaps in a parallel realm?
The mystery swirls - Who is Piranesi? Is there another world beyond his reach? How did he come to be trapped? What is the role of the Other? - propelling the novel towards an unexpected end.
It’s easy to twist yourself in knots trying to interpret the possible meanings of Clarke‘s peculiar story and the many symbols she’s included.
Perhaps Piranesi’s labyrinthine prison reflected Clarke’s own confinement over the past decade, the author having suffered from a mysterious illness causing chronic fatigue. Perhaps she felt she was losing herself and her grip on the real world, just as Piranesi did.
Perhaps there are more clues in the novel’s epigraph, a quote by CS Lewis from The Magician’s Nephew: “I am the great scholar, the magician, the adept, who is doing the experiment. Of course I need subjects to do it on’. Is this about the selfishness of those who thirst for knowledge at the expense of those around them?
Besides her skill at provoking these thoughts, the way Clarke plays with form and language adds another layer to the inventiveness of Piranesi’s world. For example, the voice of Piranesi in his journal entries subtly changes as he pieces the puzzle together - to the extent that he even gradually let’s go of his Capitalisations.
For all its strangeness and regardless of the meaning you take from it, this is a novel that keeps you pondering until the end.