Susanna Clarke’s “Piranesi” Is A Stunning Novel Unlike Any Other

The second novel from the author of “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” is strange and beautiful

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I realised that the search for the Knowledge has encouraged us to think of the House as if it were a sort of riddle to be unraveled, a text to be interpreted, and that if ever we discover the Knowledge, then it will be as if the Value has been wrested from the House and all that remains will be mere scenery.

Piranesi lives a quiet life. He fishes, writes in his Journals, and cares for thirteen people (who happen to be skeletons) who are, at least as far as Piranesi knows, the only people who have ever lived, apart from himself and the Other. On Tuesdays and Fridays, Piranesi meets with the Other, a scholarly and pompous man, when they attempt to uncover a Great and Secret Knowledge.

His home is the House, a structure so large it encompasses Piranesi’s entire world. It has oceans with strong, dangerous tides that Piranesi keeps careful track of in his journals. It is home to a pair of albatrosses, the only other animals, besides the fish, that live there. Instead of living creatures, the House is full of statues: a statue of a gorilla, a statue of a young boy playing the cymbals, a statue of two men with strained faces as they emerge from the wall. These statues are his companions, and he loves them all, though he admits to himself — with some guilt — that he loves some more than others.

Do trees exist?
Entry for the nineteenth day of the fifth month in the year the albatross came to the south-western halls

Many things are unknown. Once — it was about six or seven months ago — I saw a bright yellow speck floating on a gentle Tide beneath the Fourth Western Hall. Not understanding what it could be, I waded out into the Waters and caught it. It was a leaf, very beautiful, with two sides curving to a point at each end. Of course it is possible it was part of a type of sea vegetation that I have never seen, but I am doubtful. The texture seemed wrong. Its surface repelled Water, like something meant to live in Air.

But Piranesi has questions. He doesn’t think Piranesi is his real name, for one, but he can’t remember any other. He doesn’t know what the Other is doing with all his time, nor does he understand how he feeds himself, or why he always seems to look clean and polished and well-provisioned, while Piranesi wears rags and goes barefoot because he doesn’t have the time to make shoes out of the only available material — fish leather. He isn’t convinced that the Great and Secret Knowledge is worth looking for. And when he discovers that there’s somebody else in the House, whom the Other claims is their enemy and must be avoided if not destroyed outright, Piranesi begins to question everything — who he really is, who the Other is and what his goals are, and whether his love for the House is enough to keep him living in solitude forever.

I loved Piranesi, who is naïve, big-hearted, and pure, almost childlike in his wide-eyed innocence. The ease with which he’s taken advantage is agonizing, because he means well and cares so much for everything and everyone he comes into contact with. His frequent use of capitalization is illustrative of the reverence he has for all things, whether living, dead, or inanimate.

This strange world, with so few living characters and so much time spent wandering down Halls, lingering in Vestibules, and transcribing the Tides may lead the early reader to believe this book is more of character study than anything else. But there’s plenty of tension and action that transform what first appears to be a portrait of a House and its caretaker into a thrilling adventure that never loses sight of the sensitivity that grounds it and makes it something truly special.

I recommend this book to everyone, absolutely everyone. It is that magical, that beautiful, that heart-warming. If you’re a reader of romance, pick up Piranesi, where you’ll find a new kind of love, between a character and his cherished home. If you love suspense novels, read Piranesi, where the threat of an invisible danger could result in this young man’s death at one wrong turn. If you love literary fiction, read Piranesi, and linger on this novel’s unique form, its poetic descriptions, its masterful character development, all in only 245 pages. And if you, like so many of us, have struggled to focus on a book since March, I urge you to pick up Piranesi, and get lost in the beautiful, quiet Halls of this House.

PIRANESI comes out September 15, and you can preorder it here. I recommend getting a physical copy — it’s gorgeous.

(I use affiliate links, not that it matters in this case, but just so you know! When you buy a book through the links I post in my reviews and roundups, I get a small cut of it. Help a girl out!)

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.

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