By Susanna Clarke
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
A new story by Susanna Clarke is a cause for celebration. She first appeared on the literary scene in 1996 with the stories "Stopp't Clock Yard" and "The Ladies of Grace Adieu" and published occasional stories that always demonstrated imagination, a wonderful use of language, and innovation. Her first novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was a tour-de-force that built on several of her previous short stories. She has now followed up with Piranesi, a completely unrelated novel that confounds the reader's expectations in the best possible ways.
When Piranesi is first introduced to the reader, he is living in a vast house, three storeys tall, with hundreds, if not thousands, of statue-filled rooms stretching for miles in every direction. The lower floor if often inundated by the sea upon which the house is built and the upper floor is filled with birds and clouds. This house is Piranesi's entire world except for the weekly meetings with "The Other," who moves throughout the house separate from Piranesi and exists as a spiritual mentor and guide to Piranesi. Although the reader can quickly formulate an understanding of the situation, like Piranesi, Clarke is keeping the reader in the dark and the reader is forced to read the book with incomplete information.
Clarke continuously is changing the reality of his home as Piranesi understands it, but is also dropping hints so that when she reveals the next piece of the puzzle to both Piranesi and the reader, it makes complete sense and the altered reality is accepted (less well by Piranesi) as a logical extension and contradiction of what was expected.
Left to make his own way in the house with only minimal guidance from the Other, Piranesi builds a complex worldview based on the regularity of the tides that wash through the lower level, and occasionally rise to the second level, the meaning of the statues, the presence of birds, and, perhaps most importantly, around the thirteen human skeletons he has found throughout the house, the only indication he has aside from himself and the Other than people exist. Piranesi has developed intricate rituals regarding these remains that help bond him not only to other people who he never knew, but also to the house in which he lived.
Eventually, Clarke and the Other introduce Piranesi to the concept of "16" a possibly mythical human is not accounted for by Piranesi, the Other, or the skeletal remains. Like the snake entering the Garden of Eden, 16 expands Piranesi's understanding of the world even as the Other warns Piranesi about 16's motives. Wary of 16, this extra person's mere presence offers invitations to Piranesi to question the reality he has built for himself and reconsider what might be his own past.
Clarke handles her small cast of characters quite well, showing the changing relationship between Piranesi and the Other in a believable way, as well as Piranesi's relationships with less animate or less sentient beings. The house, as depicted by Piranesi, has become its own character, reminiscent of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast as seen through a Victorian lens. Piranesi's own understanding of the layout allows the reader to picture the way the vast marble halls and stairways connect to each other and Piranesi's favorite statues offer a sense of reassurance in his descriptions.
Often when an author has a highly successful first book, there is a fear that they may be a one-novel author. With Piranesi, Clarke demonstrates that she is not only capable of writing addition books, but also writing books that are significantly different from the novel that first brought her to so many reader's attention. That the new novel is innovative, intelligent, imaginative, and tonally a new direction from what she has published before, but seems to be perfectly in line with the type of work I would expect from Clarke.
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