Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Narnia, Philip Pulman’s multiverse, David Mitchell’s “metanovel”, Hogwarts … English writing is full of people disappearing through portals into other worlds. Piranesi adds another, but Clarke’s version feels definitive in its empathy, clarity and specificity.

Narrated as a series of journal entries, the book begins with some astonishing opening sentences:

When the Moon rose in the Third Northern Hall I went to the Ninth Vestibule to witness the joining of three Tides. This is something that happens once every eight years.

Clarke seems to be playing with the wordiness of fantasy and science fiction writing, but she is also being deadly serious. Moreover this is watertight writing; she doesn’t drop a thread. It feels novel for these initially baffling phrases to feel so essential.

The writer of the journal is a man in his early thirties living in a seemingly infinite series of halls and vestibules he calls the House. Every wall of the House (he uses an idiosyncratic system of capitalisation) is lined with marble statues. The upper floors are the realm of clouds and mist; the lower of an ocean that sends irregular but predictable flooding tides up to the living floors. The man is alone, apart from an older man who he calls the Other, who in turn calls the narrator Piranesi, even though he feels this is not his real name. Piranesi helps the Other in his search for something known as the Great and Secret Knowledge, which offers great and somewhat terrible powers. The first hint that the House is not what it seems is the presence of a branded English biscuit tin that establishes at least some connection with our world and our time.

There are more than enough mysteries established in the first couple of pages to explore throughout the novel, and Clarke sensibly doesn’t throw too many more into the mix. What emerges is a page-turning, terrifically entertaining and ultimately quite moving tale of intellectual exploration, memory and power.

It is tempting to see the puzzle as the point, but Piranesi himself warns us off such pursuit:

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.

It would be all too easy to have such a story turn into a gesture towards something inexplicable nd numinous, and there is plenty that is wondrous and beautiful in Piranesi’s halls, but Clarke grounds her story so specifically in the messiness of life (I’m being very vague because despite all the protesting about the puzzle not being the point, it is great fun to watch it unfold). Piranesi is a name associated with labyrinths, “a symbol of mingled glory and horror of existence. No one gets out alive”. He is the perfect guide to navigate the dark halls and vestibules.

Gay rating: 3/5 for a major gay character and brief references to broader queer experience.

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