Surreal novel about a world of halls and statues
Content warning: trauma, disability
I have been anticipating this book since I first heard it was coming out earlier this year. I must have read her previous book “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell” just before I started this blog, and it is honestly a fantastic example of the fantasy genre. It was also adapted into a BBC miniseries which is, unusually, just as good and I highly, highly recommend it as well. Despite her excellence as a writer, the author has unfortunately not published anything since her debut novel came out about 15 years ago due to her struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome or more accurately known as ME/CFS. This is a debilitating disease that can affect anyone, and that has an enormous impact on day-to-day life. Clarke has spoken frankly about her experiences as an author with chronic illness and how she was able to tackle a project like her second novel.
In a physical sense, this book is absolutely stunning. The dust jacket is decorated with copper foil, and the hardcover underneath has a complementary but different design with each letter of the title, in the same font as the dust jacket, resting on a pillar. When I bought my copy from Harry Hartog, I was absolutely delighted to see that it came with a free tote bag which I have been using constantly, I love it so much.
“Piranesi” by Susanna Clarke is a fantasy novel about a man who lives in the House. The House is made up of many, many halls – each one leading to another. The man has one friend he calls the Other who in turn calls him Piranesi, though Piranesi is not sure if that is his real name. Piranesi spends his days observing the statues in the halls, gathering food, anticipating the ocean tides that rise and fall through the halls and writing his observations and thoughts in his carefully indexed notebooks. However, shortly after one of his biweekly meetings with the Other, the Other warns Piranesi not to speak to anyone else he might come across in the House. When a new person suddenly appears with a counter-warning, and Piranesi finds messages written in chalk, his understanding of the world is shattered. Unsure who is friend and who is foe, Piranesi must place his faith in the House and figure out the truth.
This is an exceptional novel. The pacing is absolutely perfect and Clarke expertly unfurls the story, tantalising the reader with each new piece of information. It is a surreal novel, and Clarke somehow manages to make the seemingly endless halls seem both infinite and claustrophobic. Piranesi is an extraordinarily patient, resourceful and spiritual character whose main object is survival in this peculiar world. His meticulous observation and note-taking skills allow him to predict the dangers and bounties of the House and live with just enough security to explore its halls and study its statues. Clarke is very concerned with perspective in this book, and it quickly becomes clear that Piranesi’s worldview is at odds with that of the Other and even with his past self. Through this novel, Clarke explores the limits of human adaptability and the lengthswe will go to for self-preservation. I also really liked how she handles the question of identity, what it is that makes us individuals and the extent to which memory and identity are entertwined.
Also, I cannot review this book without mentioning how thrilled and excited I was that there was a character called Angharad. I legitimately did not see how it could get any better, and then Clarke drops a character with my name.
An incredible book that I enjoyed start to finish. Clarke is one of the best fantasy authors out there and if she continues to write books of this calibre, there is no limit to how long I will wait for the next one.