Piranesi by Susanna Clarke – Bloomsbury publishing, 2020 – Piranesi is the second in my Dearest Darling Daughter’s (DDD) choices, and by far the oddest and most interesting of the Christmas gift books this year. CBS says it’s ‘Destined to become a work of classic fantasy’ and it was given glowing praise by sources as diverse as the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times reviewers, not to mention making the New York Times bestseller list.
For my money, this is the kind of book that would appeal to those who favor of ‘art’ films over Hollywood predictability. There are many wonderful ‘art’ films, but they usually don’t appeal to vast audiences so, the fact this book made the bestseller list is a bit surprising.
Most of the book is offered by way of entries into Piranesi’s diary. Clarke takes this single character and places him in an alternative world that consists of a gigantic mansion with a veritable labyrinth of vast rooms with high ceilings and staircases, all of which are crowded with countless statues and a few inhabited by birds. There are also several oceans that provide food for Piranesi, although some of the rooms and staircases flood when the tide comes in – something that Piranesi must monitor carefully for his own safety. Piranesi feels himself ‘beloved’ by the mansion, which provides for his needs and offers endless opportunities for exploring. He also spends time caring for bones, the remains of twelve people Piranesi has found in his explorations.
At first I persuaded myself that the story was a large metaphor for the emptiness of a solitary life while surrounded by the uncaring – symbolized by the many differing statues. Then the ‘Other’ is introduced. A few diary entries with the ‘Other’ and I began wondering if he was a psychiatrist and the story was evoking the inner view of someone with a severe mental illness.
Piranesi’s world is his comfort but it begins to unravel when the ‘Other’ starts putting unwelcome ideas into his head. These ideas trigger memories that challenge Piranesi’s current perception of his origin and life. Then he begins finding bits of paper with disconnected jottings that further destabilize his view of life in the mansion. He meets a prophet and finds evidence that a stranger, called Sixteen (the name is derived from adding 12 sets of bones with Piranesi, the ‘Other’, the prophet and the stranger 12 + 4 = 16), is looking for him. The ‘Other’ warns Piranesi that Sixteen is evil and will attempt to drive him mad.
Clarke eventually unravels the mysteries: What is the mansion? Who is Piranesi and how did he get to the mansion? Who is Sixteen and what will happen when Piranesi eventually encounters this enemy of the Other? Is there egress from the mansion and, if there is a way out, will Piranesi leave?
I remember reading Clarke’s earlier offering, ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’, a great read with a quirky view that drew on aspects of an alternative history. Piranesi pushes us even further into the realm of alternative experience. Perhaps not for everyone, Piranesi is a short and well crafted novel that will be enjoyed by those who appreciate a venture into something completely different.
TL:DR – What I’d call a cult classic.