Susanna Clarke is best known for her 2004 novel turned TV series Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, set in the nineteenth century and dealing with practitioners or magic and their relationship with the fairy world. This was a doorstop of a book, full of academic style footnotes and sly authorly winks. In comparison, her latest book Piranesi is much more spare, clocking in at around 250 pages and with a limited cast of characters. But it deals with many of the same themes and is no less affecting.
Piranesi, as the narrator is called although he knows that this is not his name, lives in a world of giant interconnected hallways filled with statues. The world, which he calls the House, exists on three levels – an oceanic level, the main level and a sky level. Piranesi keeps a journal in which he records days on which interesting things occur. Piranesi lives alone but twice a week encounters a man he calls Other and believes to be his only friend. The Other is seeking Piranesi’s help in unlock deep magical secrets, using the power of the House which the Other refers to as “the Labyrinth”. It is when the Other learns that a potential outsider may be seeking to find Piranesi that his world starts to change.
Piranesi is an incredibly rich, deeply compassionate and constantly surprising modern fantasy. The world of endless seemingly random corridors filled with strange giant statues of creatures or of ordinary people going about daily tasks is beautifully described. The House/Labyrinth is not strictly a magical world but it is one created by the flow of magic. Its secrets are revealed slowly but are such that their revelation never comes as a complete surprise. The clues usually more obvious to modern readers than they are to Piranesi himself.
As with Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell, Clarke is interested in exploring the concepts of madness and reason, of the manipulation of the powerless by the powerful, of the loss of magic in the world. She even manages to get in some digs at academia. And she does this through the perspective of a man who has to come to terms with a growing understanding that his world is not as it seems. Piranesi is a gem of modern fantasy – weird yet familiar, slow paced but thrilling, beautiful and scary. It has been a long time between Susanna Clarke books but it has been worth the wait.
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