In 2004, Susanna Clarke published her first novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, in the kind of massive, culture-shaking event most novelists dream of. Then she vanished from public life.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a big, sprawling, mythical book, a Victorian pastiche full of footnotes and arch Austenian wit in which ancient magics keep seeping in through the margins. It is substantial, both in length and in ideas, and also enormously fun to read. A reader’s report that Clarke’s publisher commissioned before acquiring the book and then distributed widely afterward began with the reader declaring they were waiving their usual fee because they had enjoyed reading the book so much.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is the only book ever to have been both long-listed for literary fiction’s Mann Booker Prize and win fantasy’s Hugo Award. Neil Gaiman declared himself a fan and started comparing Clarke to Shakespeare. That book established Clarke, then 44 years old and working as a cookbook editor, as one of the great fantasy novelists of her generation. She seemed to be on the precipice of a monumental career.
So when Clarke stopped appearing in public, it was as though she had fallen under one of her own enchantments. She was like Jonathan Strange’s Lady Poole, doomed to spend half her life in Faerie and the other half in waking torment.
This week, Clarke has emerged from her long confinement. After spending the past 15 years grappling on and off with a debilitating and undiagnosed illness, she’s at last recovered enough of herself to walk through the world again. And she’s making her reentry with a new book.
Clarke’s new novel is called Piranesi, and it is haunting. It establishes Clarke not just as one of the great fantasy novelists of her generation, but as one of the greatest novelists of any genre currently writing in English.
Piranesi is a more compact book than its predecessor. It clocks in at just over 200 pages, and it doesn’t have any footnotes. But its small scale doesn’t reflect a lack of anything to say. Instead it reflects a kind of density, as though Clarke has poured an enormous amount of thought and emotion into this book, and then tamped it deliberately down until everything fits.
The opening epigraph to Piranesi comes from C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, the Genesis volume of Narnia. There, the unscrupulous bourgeois villain Uncle Andrew Ketterley sends his nephew and his nephew’s friends off into the Wood Between Worlds, a magical forest filled with ponds, each of which is the portal to another world. The children eventually use these ponds to get to Narnia, of course, but before that they visit Charn, a dying and wicked world made up of nothing but a hall filled with stone statues.
Piranesi takes place in a world that evokes both Charn and that magical wood (both of which, incidentally, function as metaphors for reading or writing a book). It’s a world that consists only of a vast, flooded series of halls that go on for miles in all directions, with stairs leading up to more and more levels. On the lower levels, oceans pool unfathomably deep. On the upper levels, birds fly. Everywhere, there are great marble statues. And there is our narrator, picking his way carefully and with great innocence through the parts that are passable.
I’ll call our narrator Piranesi because that’s what he is called throughout most of the book, but he notes that Piranesi is not his name. Strangely, he does not seem to know what his real name is, nor does he harbor any particular curiosity about what it might be. He calls the network of halls the House, and he considers himself the Beloved Child of the House.
Piranesi is a scientist, he informs us, and he limits his understanding of this world to what he can observe. His observations have led him to the conclusion that, at minimum, 15 people have ever lived in the House: Piranesi himself; the remains of 13 humans whom Piranesi has found scattered across the House and whom he treats with religious tenderness; and the Other: the only living human being in the House that Piranesi has ever met.
The Other’s real name is Ketterley, like Lewis’s wicked Uncle Andrew, and he goes through life with the same bourgeois arrogance. Ketterley is Piranesi’s only human contact, and while Piranesi is under the impression that the two of them live together in the House as trusted colleagues and close friends, it rapidly becomes clear to the reader that Ketterley considers Piranesi his slave.
Ketterley believes the House harbors some great and terrible secret that will grant him immense power, including immortality and the ability to control weaker minds. He considers Piranesi valuable because of Piranesi’s encyclopedic knowledge of the House, but he looks down on him. When Piranesi blushingly explains that he cannot travel to a particularly dangerous part of the House as Ketterley wishes him to because his shoes wore out a year ago, Ketterley — himself “so neat, so elegant in his suit and his shining shoes” — berates him. “Honestly, Piranesi,” he says, “What an idiot you are!” He assures Piranesi he’ll bring him the shoes he needs (“no need to thank me”), and Piranesi joyfully records the exchange in his meticulous journals, grateful for his friend’s generosity.
It is Ketterley who has given Piranesi his nickname, as a private joke with himself. In our world, Piranesi is an 18th-century Italian engraver best remembered for his unnerving, vaguely Escher-like studies of imaginary prisons. In context, Ketterley’s joke is on Clarke’s Piranesi, a prisoner who doesn’t know he is one. But to Clarke’s Piranesi, who lives his life permanently out of context, this allusion means nothing.
Ketterley knows enough about our world to be able to make this sort of joke, but the idea of any world besides the world of the House is nonsensical to Piranesi, in part because he believes the House to be sufficient to his needs. Piranesi is terribly alone, but he has made that solitude into a gift. He finds the House beautiful, and he records his days there with a sense of wonder, awed at his surroundings’ ability to commune with him. He has formed a friendship with many of the statues, including a Mr. Tumnus-like faun. He believes that the birds who live in the upper halls send him messages from the House. When he sees two albatrosses struggling to find enough materials to build a nest for their egg, he brings them some of the dried seaweed he keeps to burn as fuel in the winters.
“I knew that I might be colder because I had given it away,” he says. “But what is a few days of feeling cold compared to a new albatross in the World?”
Piranesi offers us hints that he did not always live his life with so much joy. As he enumerates the many volumes of his journals for us, we can see that they are at first dated with the conventional, numerical years of our own world: 2011, 2012. But then comes some terrible trauma, and 2012 loses its number to become “the Year of Weeping and Wailing.”
Yet after this year comes “the Year I discovered the Coral Halls.” And after that is “the Year I named the Constellations.” As the book begins, Piranesi is in “the Year the Albatross came to the South-Western Halls.” Whatever trauma came to him, Piranesi has transcended it, risen above the horror to live in a state of radiant innocence.
Reading Piranesi, it is easy to rage at Ketterley for the grubby, sordid way he uses someone as pure as Piranesi, to pity Piranesi for his blissful ignorance that something terrible has been done to him. But Piranesi’s innocence grants him abilities that we, in our worldliness, do not have. He experiences his world from a place of intimate connection. When the tides come in and sweep him off his feet, he lands in the hand of one of the House’s great statues, and he thanks it for catching him.
The pages in which we follow Piranesi in his life throughout the House have a slow, meditative pace, but they are immensely compelling. I kept picking up my copy of the book to read during breaks in the day and then finding myself unable to put it down when my time was up. I wasn’t getting caught on cliffhangers or anything like that, I just wanted to see Piranesi live his life.
But inevitably, plot seeps its way into the narrative. It takes the form of an unknown individual Piranesi calls 16, someone Ketterley warns him is roaming the House and who means Ketterley harm. As Piranesi finds himself forced to turn to the question mark of his past identity, the book gradually begins to take the form of a puzzle box mystery, one where Piranesi must begin to investigate his own past, drawing clues from his old journals.
Clarke knows how to write a compelling mystery. But as her plot’s conclusion draws us inexorably out of the House and through a portal into our mundane world where people like Ketterley and Uncle Andrew are so common, some of the transcendent brilliance of this book begins to wash away. And the scene that would be the climax of a traditional novel — a big action sequence with a gun and a flood — is by far the least interesting section of Piranesi.
But everything that comes before that final section is so haunting, so exquisite, that I can’t bring myself to care too much. The image of the flooded House has lingered in my head for weeks, and the purity of Piranesi’s voice has started to inflect the way I speak. Piranesi did what all truly great novels do, which is to take me out of myself and then return me back as someone new and changed.
Piranesi is a book bigger than its mysteries and bigger than its slim page length. You will want to let it swallow you whole.
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