Piranesi by Susanna Clarke 📚
This novel is both much lighter than the author’s earlier Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell while at the same time more profound. Both stories are marked departures from the conventions of the fantasy genre, but Piranesi takes us even further afield, to the point that it circles back to the roots of fantastic literature.
The cast of characters is limited, and initially there is only the narrator recording events in his journal. As the story progresses we are introduced to only a few more, allowing each new entrance to be a major event in the plot. But the most important element is the stage on which these players move, a world which consists of a gigantic building of unknown extent, subject to tides in its lower chambers and the vagaries of sun and cloud in its upper levels, inhabited only by the narrator and an uncounted number of rooms, stairs, doorways, birds, and statues. It calls to mind the crumbling sprawl of Gormenghast but is clearly not intended for human habitation; life for the narrator is challenging, bringing to mind Robinson Crusoe cast ashore on a desert island. The mystery of the “House” is the central theme of the book, and the most obvious clues are the numerous marble statues which are scattered in each room, each representing a person or animal persona with no context, random archetypes extracted from all of our world’s stories.
The novel itself is a series of revelations, as the narrator encounters the other characters and slowly learns the meaning and origin of the world he inhabits and his own role within that story, each meeting leading him back to earlier volumes of his journal which contain the keys to the mystery. There are echoes here of Lovecraft’s dreamworld (without those tedious elder gods); and of Borges’s infinite library (with statues in place of books). There is no great reveal at the end, but the story slowly builds to the narrator’s own acceptance of who he is and his place in his own narrative.