Piranesi, the eponymous protagonist of Susanna Clarke’s spellbinding new novel, knows what it’s like to spend all day in the house. He’s not quarantining, exactly, there’s simply nowhere else to go. As far back as he remembers — it’s all a bit hazy — he’s been living in the House, a gargantuan Gothic labyrinth “like an infinite series of classical buildings knitted together.” To Piranesi, the terms “House” and “World” are interchangeable. Outside merely consists of courtyards and celestial bodies. At least he has a quarantine pod to keep him company, made up of thousands of stone statues, hundreds of birds, 13 skeletons (cause of death unknown), and one other living man, fittingly referred to as “The Other.” The pair’s co-working from home involves searching for a hidden “Great and Secret Knowledge” that The Other fervently believes will grant them “enormous powers” that range from immortality to transforming into eagles. In typical Clarke fashion, it only gets more fantastical from there.
In 2004, Clarke blew up the fantasy world with her sensational and sprawling debut bestseller, “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.” That alternative history of magic set in 19th-century England runs a massive 1,000 pages populated with rival magicians, faerie kingdoms, the Napoleonic Wars, and 185 detailed footnotes. Written in sophisticated and witty, Austen-like prose, “Jonathan Strange” is an enchanting, exhausting, and wholly original story that fantasy patron saint Neil Gaiman even proclaimed “unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last 70 years.”
Fans have eagerly waited 16 years for Clarke’s follow-up, a delay reportedly caused by ill health — Clarke has said she suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome. News of a new book finally broke last September and the hype rocketed to literary heights, her publisher (admittedly biased) calling it a “perfectly constructed novel.” Juicy tidbits referring to a “watery labyrinth” with a “terrible truth” only fueled anticipation. Could “Piranesi” match it? I’m delighted to say it has, with Clarke’s singular wit and imagination still intact in a far more compressed yet still captivating tale you’ll want to delve into again right after you read its sublime last sentence.
Much of the pleasure of reading “Piranesi” derives from Piranesi himself, the charming if rather naive waif who narrates the novel via journal entries under an invented event-based calendar — for example, “Entry for the Seventh Day of the Fifth Month in the Year the Albatross Came to the South-Western Halls.” It was The Other who named him Piranesi — a wry wink to astute art history scholars — though he knows it can’t be his real name. Still, he’s carrying on rather well given his confined circumstances. He’s not much interested in the “Great and Secret Knowledge” — at one point he questions whether it even exists — instead spending his days joyfully exploring and cataloging the “Splendours of the World” down to the “Position, Size, and Subject” of every statue starting with the minotaurs in the First Vestibule. (Indeed, what would a labyrinth be without a minotaur?)
Before you comment, know that all of these proper nouns aren’t typos. Piranesi has a religious reverence for the House, praying to it for protection and referring to himself as “The Beloved Child of the House,” and holds everything in it sacred and thus worthy of capitalization. To Piranesi, the House isn’t a dark and gloomy place, but a dazzling sort of Atlantis that Clarke deftly evokes in descriptions of statues crowned with coral and staircases that had become “one vast bed of mussels.” This has the added benefit of making the House, though repetitive in structure, never a bore for the reader to explore alongside Piranesi.
The Other, on the other hand, likens the labyrinth to “endless dreary rooms all the same, full of decaying figures covered with bird [expletive].” He seemingly appears out of nowhere twice a week impeccably dressed to give Piranesi new assignments while “making notes on his shining device,” and prepping for the next ritual to bring about the ancient Knowledge he seeks. Piranesi considers him a friend — we know better — but discoveries of odd objects like crisp packets and torn up notes during his data collecting make him start to doubt The Other’s intentions, and whether a “sixteenth” person may be visiting the House’s halls.
The story takes all manner of bizarre twists and thrilling turns from there — neo-pagan academics, a Flood, and gunfire all make an appearance — but I wouldn’t want to spoil the fun. Admirers of “Jonathan Strange” will surely enjoy Clarke’s continued penchant for vivid world building where something supernatural could appear around any corner. However, it’s the non-magical moments that linger the longest in “Piranesi.” Early on, Piranesi attempts to enter a room but finds it full of a flock of birds in flight “like a column of smoke.” He watches in wonder as the birds “circled and spiraled, creating a whirling dance.” In Piranesi’s, and Clarke’s, view, there is a “Great” knowledge and sort of magic in the World. Unlike The Other, though, they don’t see it as secret. It’s everywhere, from the soothing sound of “tides beating endlessly on marble walls” to a smiling Statue of a Fawn. All one has to do to find it is slow down, look around, and take it all in. It’s a bit harder stuck inside a house, but “Piranesi” profoundly proves that it’s all just a matter of perception.
By Susanna Clarke
Bloomsbury, 272 pp., $27