This was the first novel I read this year. It is the second novel by Susanna Clarke, the author of Johnathan Strange & Mr Norrell and it was published in autumn last year. I wanted to read it already last year, but didn’t get around to it, which was strange, because I had been anticipating its release all year.
Now, I had a rough start with JS & Mr N. I got it as a hardcover in 2004, right when it was published (maybe even as a present, I can’t quite remember). I thought it would be right up my alley, a lovely thick fantasy novel. I saved it up for my annual autumn vacation on the Baltic and then… I got bogged down after maybe the first third. I didn’t pick it up again until 2019, and then I loved it. I guess my tastes had evolved.
I think I didn’t get into it on my first reading, because it isn’t written like a typical fantasy novel. It’s written like a 19th century novel and I wasn’t into reading such a huge book in such a style at the time. It’s also not pure fantasy but also a kind of alternative history of England during the Napoleonic Wars with fantastic elements. It’s all about how England used to be a magical place, full of fairies and magicians, but from which the magic had gradually disappeared. Mr Norrell and Jonathan Strange are the only real magicians left and they revive the practice of magic in England. They have a tumultuous relationship as master and pupil, rivals, and friends. Fairies (pretty terrifying ones) and fairy realms also play an important role. The novel has hundreds of footnotes referencing made-up works of history and magic which gives the world-building verisimilitude. It’s intricate and detailed and sometimes a little slow going, but it grows on you. When I started it again in 2019 I loved it so much that I looked up the author and found her short story collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu. The eight stories in the collection are also set in the world of JS & Mr N and explore women magicians (who had not played a role in the earlier novel). I also loved these tales.
So, I was thrilled to find that a new novel was to be published in 2020. I got Piranesi for Christmas from my Partner and started reading it early in January.
The novel is about a character called Piranesi, who lives in a strange, partly ruined House. The House seems to take up all the space in Piranesi’s world, at least he has never seen anything else. The lower floors of the House are drowned in seawater, the higher ones are partly fallen down and open to the sky. The sea contains fish and seaweed which is what Piranesi lives off. There are also birds and another person called “Other” by Piranesi. The Other is preoccupied with the search for a secret knowledge in the House, and Piranesi helps him with the project. Oddly, the Other occasionally brings Piranesi food and clothing that seems like it could have come from our world. Also, the Other isn’t always in the House. Piranesi spends a lot of his time exploring the House, which is like a maze, full of huge rooms that are full of statues that depict ordinary things and people from our world as well as from mythology. There are also the skeletal remains of (I think) 13 people, that Piranesi reverently looks after, kind of like someone might look after the grave of a loved one. At the beginning of the novel, Piranesi is a lovely, slightly strange and absent-minded person, who seems a little simple. But during the course of the novel, he gradually finds out more about the Other, about himself, and about the world beyond the House (and so does the reader). This gradual revelation or uncovering of secrets by Piranesi is very well done. Later in the book, the action speeds up and becomes thrilling. In the end, Piranesi has undergone a psychological transformation and is no longer Piranesi.
The novel is set in our time (it ends in 2018). Like JS & Mr N it contains many details and a few fake books that are mentioned in the text (I always like that). It’s also about the relationship of magic and reality, and the question where the magic that used to be in our world has disappeared to. It has a few allusions to The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis (one of the Narnia books) – there’s a quote from the book at the beginning of the novel (together with a quote from a made-up book). The House in Piranesi reminds me of the city of Charn, the place where the White Witch in the Narnia novels hails from. It is also partly ruined and partly filled with statues. But the House seems benevolent, while Charn was chilling. Another parallel from The Magician’s Nephew is the “Wood between the Worlds”, which the House is also reminiscent of and then there is a theme about ethics in science, which also has echoes in The Magician’s Nephew. But really, these are just vague allusion that help to give a depth to the tale, but the novel can easily be enjoyed without noticing these parallels. But it’s nice if you are a fan of the Chronicles of Narnia.
Piranesi is a great read and I was only sorry that it is a slim novel compared to JS & Mr N. I finished it in two days (and that was savouring it – I could have read it in one sitting). If you like reading about magic elements intertwined with our mundane world or about explorations both geographical (the House) and psychological (Piranesi’s journey to self-knowledge) or about murder and deceit, all in one book, then it’s a great read.
Piranesi inspired me to read The Genesis and Geometry of the Labyrinth, mentioned here, because the House was like a maze and mazes remind me of labyrinths…
Keep safe, world.