Review

Splendid journey to find meaning in one's world

Piranesi (right) is by British author Susanna Clarke (left).
Piranesi (right) is by British author Susanna Clarke (left).PHOTO: BLOOMSBURY

FICTION

PIRANESI

By Susanna Clarke

Bloomsbury/Hardcover/245 pages/$25.95/Available at bit.ly/Piranesi_SClarke

4.5 stars

In British author Susanna Clarke's 2004 fantasy novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, mention is made of the King's Roads: a vast, shadowy network of halls, canals and staircases that connects places in this world with Faerie, which one may enter through a mirror if one knows how.

Clarke's debut novel about feuding 19th-century magicians offered but a few tantalising glimpses of this liminal space.

Sixteen years after Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell's tremendous success, she returns finally to the King's Roads - or something very much like them - and a marvellous journey it is indeed.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell sold more than four million copies worldwide and was adapted in 2015 as a BBC miniseries. It was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the prestigious Hugo and World Fantasy Awards.

Piranesi, it seems, cares little for any of that.

It is slender, a little over a quarter of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell's nearly 800 pages. It is part-fantasy, part-crime mystery and part-Borgesian fable. For a good portion of it, the reader must operate with no context for what is going on. It has not the ambitions of its predecessor, but possesses a strange splendour all its own.

It is set in the House, a series of unending halls, stairways and statues in all directions. There are three levels: the lower halls are flooded, the waters filled with fish, crustaceans and water lilies; rain pours from the clouds in the misty upper halls.

The middle halls, the most habitable, are the domain of birds and men.

One man, to be exact: the narrator, who is called Piranesi and who knows that is not his real name.

Piranesi inhabits the House with worshipful wonder. He fishes its waters, drinks its rain and tries to map its infinite halls, charting the placement of the statues and the movement of the tides in his journal.

He is the Robinson Crusoe of this world, not that he has context for who Robinson Crusoe is. "The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite," he writes.

As far as Piranesi knows, there are 15 people in the world and 13 of them are dead. He gives them names such as the Biscuit-Box Man and the Folded-Up Child and tends to their bones. The only other living person, the Other, visits him twice a week to discuss scientific findings.

One day, the Other warns Piranesi about a 16th person who must be avoided at all costs, lest their encounter drive Piranesi mad.

Historical context for the name Piranesi may supply a hint for the narrator's situation.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi was an 18th-century Italian artist famous for his Carceri d'invenzione, or Imaginary Prisons, etchings of fantastic, labyrinthine ruins.

Books published this year are inevitably read through the lens of the pandemic and there are uncanny parallels to be found in a story about a man who lives alone in a house he does not - or cannot - leave.

In the wake of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell's publication, Clarke herself suffered a debilitating illness which kept her housebound for years.

The strange and uncertain isolation forced upon the rest of the world by the pandemic is something she would already be familiar with and, indeed, Piranesi is a meditation on finding meaning in one's world, however large or small.

Though the Other seeks knowledge and power in the House, Piranesi has no interest in these things.

"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 unravelled, 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," he writes.

"The House is valuable because it is the House. It is enough in and of Itself. It is not the means to an end."

Clarke's dizzying contemplations of space and liminality, memory and madness are grounded by her narrator's gentle simplicity.

Piranesi, though he is unaware of it, is a survivor, having gone through something so traumatic, it has taken away his knowledge of himself and merged his identity with that of the House.

But he is not unhappy. "May your Paths be safe, your Floors unbroken, and may the House fill your eyes with Beauty," he says. As wishes go, it is a good one for these times.

If you like this, read: The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern (Random House, 2019, $27.95, available at bit.ly/StarlessSea_EM). When Zachary Ezra Rawlins borrows a book from the university library that should not be there, it leads him to the Starless Sea, a secret labyrinth beneath the earth where countless stories are kept.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2020, with the headline 'Splendid journey to find meaning in one's world'. Print Edition | Subscribe