Susanna Clarke’s new novel is much shorter than her wonderful Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, but even more challenging to read. It’s completely worth the trouble. Some novels I give away, but some are keepers. This is a keeper.
The man writing the story lives in a huge House of Halls, Vestibules, and Staircases. The House provides him with everything he needs—fish from the Tides that sweep the House, seaweed for food and fuel, and the Kindness of the many Statues that fill the House.
He writes daily journals in these capital letters, and creates directories of the entries. He feels blessed by the beauty of the House. The man knows only one human, whom he calls The Other. The Other has named him Piranesi, but the man knows that is not his name.
Once you have these basics, things begin to seem strange. Piranesi lives like an early tribal person, but analyzes things like a scholar. How would this Piranesi know that some statues are minotaurs? Why does he know what a crisp packet is? The book wasn’t making sense. For a chapter or two, I found that intriguing, but frustrating.
Don’t give up. The answers are more fantastical than the questions. And the answers create more questions. Would you rather be along in a world of mysterious beauty, or live an ordinary life with family and friends? How can we learn to see the beauty and magic in the world? What does it mean to be lost?
In retrospect, I’m glad that I knew nothing about this novel when I began to read it. I suggest you ignore the reviews—some of which are beautifully written—and go on the adventure as alone as Piranesi.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. Bloomsbury Publishing, September 2020.
Reviewer bio: Judith Pratt has acted, directed, and taught theatre. Her plays have been produced internationally. Her novel, Siljeea Magic, was published in 2019. She lives in Ithaca, NY with a husband and three cockatiels.
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