Shelf Care: In Piranesi, a man wanders a house he doesn't - or can't - leave

Susanna Clarke returned to fiction with this strange, beautiful novel about isolation. PHOTOS: BLOOMSBURY



By Susanna Clarke

Bloomsbury, 2020, 245 pages, $25.95, available here

There is a man called Piranesi. He lives alone in a house he does not - or cannot - leave.

Yet his life is full of wonder. "The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite," he declares.

After publishing her 2004 fantasy novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, British author Susanna Clarke suffered a debilitating illness that kept her housebound for years.

She returned to fiction last year with this strange, beautiful novel about isolation that makes for an uncannily perfect pandemic read.

It is set in the House, a series of unending halls, stairways and statues in all directions. The lower halls are flooded, rain pours from the clouds in the upper halls and the middle halls, the most habitable, are the domain of birds and men.

The House forms Piranesi's entire world. He survives by fishing its waters and drinking its rain, charting the placement of the statues and the movement of the tides in his journal.

The only other living person he knows, the Other, visits him twice a week to discuss scientific findings and bring him supplies, like shoes.

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

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. "The House is valuable because it is the House," he insists. "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.

Shelf Care is a twice-weekly column that recommends uplifting, comforting or escapist books to read while staying home during the Covid-19 pandemic.

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