Susanna Clarke’s new novel, Piranesi, is an absorbing, beautiful, and beguiling novel, with the power of telling a story so involving to the emotions and intellect that you may wish to plunge right back once you reach the end.
It is set in a world consisting entirely of vast and numerous stone Halls, lined with tiers of marble statues, some gigantic, others human-sized. The Halls are connected by doorways, many have staircases, and there are at least three Levels of Halls. (The profusion of capital Letters in this Account is due to the Influence of the novel’s narrator, a charming Child of the Halls called Piranesi, who writes like this in his journals, entries from which we are reading.) The Halls are placed in a cold, wet sea, containing fish and seaweed, and nourishing quantities of Birds (oh stop it …) whose Waters wash up and down the floors, sometimes to an alarmingly violent extent. Their Tides can be calculated, which Piranesi has done to work out when the waters will rush into the Halls from different directions at the same time and Meet in a Flood of gigantic proportions. The novel opens with one such terrifying conjunction, during which Piranesi climbs up the three Tiers of Statues to shelter behind the legs of The Woman Carrying a Beehive. He emerges safe, but soaked.
From this beginning, we appreciate Piranesi as an agile, resourceful, eager, and intelligent person. The remarks he records in his journals give the strong impression of a happy, kind, thoughtful, caring, and altogether lovable person, appreciative of the vast works of sculpted art that he lives among. He is similarly delighted by natural wonders and any small thing that comes his way. For his life is unaccountably constrained. He lives entirely alone, and meets no-one else except for one elusive and unexplained visitor whom he calls The Other, since there is no other person in Piranesi’s world but he. There are birds, of whom Piranesi is fond, and with whom he can communicate after a fashion. There are shellfish and fish, which he catches and eats, mainly dried or as soup. In one mournful episode, he makes the long journey to the Drowned Halls, which the Seas have overcome, and sits on the flat back of a broken statue’s fallen body to fish in the silent dusk.
Also in residence in the Halls are the thirteen Dead People, whose bones and bodies Piranesi tends. He brings them offerings of water lilies and fish so they do not feel alone, but he is being companionable, not worshipful. He names the Dead People, makes guesses at their position and relationships, and takes care of them. Once, in an incident of escalating tension, Piranesi has to move their bones and mummified corpses from their usual locations to higher levels, higher up the walls of the Halls, on the occasion of a particularly ferocious Tide.
There are also the Statues, with whom Piranesi communes. He loves, admires, and learns from these uncountable sculptures, and takes shelter in their hands or baskets, or tucked behind them, during high Tides. He runs to one particular statue instinctively in moments of great grief, when all he wants to do is to curl up in the outstretched hand of a giant stone faun, whom he had once dreamed that he saw in a snowy wood talking to a little girl.
At this arrival of a recognisable reference, Piranesi and his world become at once clearer and more strange to the reader. How can Piranesi recognise a Narnian but not know who he is? Where is he? Where do his memories and vocabulary come from? And why is he named (by The Other) Piranesi? I held off from looking this name up until after I’d galloped through this novel, and I’m glad I did. It made me appreciate the novel even more the second time around (and I did begin it again straight away).
Piranesi holds the stage for the first thirty pages: reporting his activities in his journal, which are fishing, planning, remembering, visiting the Halls and the Statues, and then he goes to his twice-weekly appointment with The Other. The Other is an elegantly dressed man, dark, bearded, and always preoccupied with his smartphone, which Piranesi merely understands as a glowing screen. The Other is clearly the donor of Piranesi’s clothes and possessions, but he is not very good at anticipating what Piranesi might need (replacement shoes, for instance). The Other is not a pleasant person; he is snappy, abrupt, condescending, and demanding. When the novel opens he has a new scheme in mind, requiring Piranesi’s help with a ritual to summon powers and spirits who will bestow important new knowledge on them both. Piranesi is happy to oblige, but has reservations that multiply as his own knowledge increases.
When The Other enters the narrative, the mood changes. New words arrive, new urgencies infuse the pace of the story, and Piranesi begins to question, separating his own needs and knowledge from what The Other claims and explains.
The Other warns Piranesi not to approach any stranger he might meet in the Halls, but this excites Piranesi: that means that there are sixteen persons in the world! (Added to the Thirteen Dead People, himself and The Other.) But Piranesi is obediently cautious, until he sees chalked directions on the floor, which he deduces must have been written by this mysterious “16”. He feels that he should correct one of them, a miscounted direction that will lead “16” astray, because he does not wish “16” to get lost in the Halls.
And so Piranesi begins to discover where he is, who other people are, and what The Other wants to do with him. This is a story of accumulating knowledge and continuing marvels, and is held in tension between Piranesi’s innate goodness, and the shocking truth of how he came to be there. Ideas about how language comes to be, and how reality is manufactured might wash through your mind: thus you will think about identities being lost and found, and who the self really is. You will also love Clarke’s storytelling, and the magnificent creation of an Other World more benign and less alien than that ruled over by her previous creation from Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. This is a world that the gentleman with the thistledown hair could inhabit, though he would not like to live there (it is sadly lacking in civilised amenities), but he would approve of its perilous nature.
Slowly, Piranesi is brought to understand that there is another world outside the Halls, that “16” and The Other have a mutual acquaintance, and then one day an old man makes an appearance in the Halls. He marvels at their beauty and size, and is pleased with having found them. His interview with Piranesi has the stomach-churning feeling of danger, of innocence encountering evil. But Piranesi is also wise, brave, strong, and true, true to his own nature and his own hard-worn empirical knowledge. These frail qualities are his only defence against the dark arts he is about to encounter.
Piranesi is one of those endlessly giving novels that reveal more details the more you read it, and the ending, above all, is an imperative to begin again. David Mitchell has called this an exquisite puzzle-box of a novel, and it is: consistently surprising, delightful, heart-stopping, and strange. I loved it. I commend it highly.