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Piranesi by Susanna Clarke4.5 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsPiranesi is a haunting and dreamlike puzzle of a book. The first novel in sixteen years from Susanna Clarke — who became a bestselling sensation with her debut Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell — could not possibly be more different than that book in terms of its story. Yet it’s clearly a product of the same wondrous imagination. It’s a beautifully told metafictional mystery that never leaves you feeling you’re not being given enough information to piece together your own ideas from available clues, nor does it pull the rug out from under you as its revelations come. It’s so captivating and original that I think I could read it again right away and enjoy it just as much, even knowing how it ends, because I could just bask in the atmosphere of its setting and the deep empathy of its hero.

I’m going to be as sparse as I can with the plot synopsis here, because you really should go into this one knowing as little as possible. In fact, I’m selfishly tempted to tell you to ignore any other reviews of this book you might see, at least until after you’ve read it, because they’ll be very likely to drop some major spoilers. (In fact I’ve read mainstream media reviews of this book, and most of them just give it all away.) But I can offer you hints that will be just enough to start you on the journey, because right from the beginning, Clarke engages your imagination so vividly that you can’t help theorizing almost immediately.

Our very unreliable narrator, Piranesi, is a young man who lives in a labyrinthine palace so huge it could very well be infinite. The House, as he calls it, consists of a series of long halls lined with an endless array of marble statues, each one unique. Some of the statues are small, some are life-sized, and some of them tower ten or twenty meters tall. The lower levels descend underwater, and the upper levels are high enough to fill up with clouds. The House has its own weather patterns, and the tides come in and out, flooding some halls permanently and others temporarily. Some halls are old and dilapidated, full of broken statuary and seaweed and trash and bird poo, while others look newer.

Piranesi doesn’t see anything at all unusual about his situation. The House is the World to him. He spends his days as a scientist, studying his environment. He makes notes and charts and maps, and fills journals with his findings. According to his observations, only fifteen people have ever been alive. There are thirteen skeletons located at various points throughout the House, and Piranesi calls himself the fourteenth inhabitant.

The fifteenth is an older man Piranesi calls the Other. He meets the Other once a week on a strict schedule, mainly to help the Other in his research into what he calls “the Great and Secret Knowledge,” which the Other believes will give him superpowers like telepathy. Piranesi has no real interest in that kind of thing, but he helps the Other anyway because he values what he thinks is the friendship between them. Piranesi sees the House as being complete in itself, and worthy of studying and understanding on its own terms without seeking any kind of personal reward. And yet, some things don’t add up right from the outset.

Piranesi’s journals use a calendar system of his own devising, but earlier entries are labeled with conventional years, ending at 2012. So what happened in 2012? Also, if Piranesi — who tells us he’s 35 in the story — has indeed spent his whole life in the House, why doesn’t he ever speak, or even seem to think, about his own past? How does he know how to read and write? How does he understand concepts that suggest an awareness of human society? Piranesi doesn’t know everything, but he knows things he doesn’t seem to realize he knows. And the Other tells him many times that he has a faulty memory.

Also, Piranesi isn’t his real name. It’s a name given to him by the Other, and Piranesi accepts it like he does everything else, without any hint of the kind of self-reflection that might cause him to wonder or care if he ever had another name. The choice of name is one of our first clues, as I realized when I did a little digging on Google. Giovanni Battista Piranesi was an 18th century Italian artist very well known for his etchings of ancient Roman ruins, as well as a series of fourteen drawings called “Imaginary Prisons,” depicting vast cavernous structures, some of which feature what are called “impossible geometries,” with enormous bridges and staircases that don’t seem to lead anywhere except other bridges and staircases. So right away, it becomes apparent: Piranesi, though he doesn’t realize it, is a prisoner. But whose prisoner, and why, and for how long? And things are only about to get stranger when the Other informs Piranesi that yet another person may be in the House with them.

And that’s as far as I’m going to go. As it happens, the mystery is only part of the story. In contrast to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a chonk of a tome that weighed in at nearly a thousand pages, Piranesi is just under 250, making it the ideal length for its kind of story. With such a short page count to work with, Clarke is fairly quick with the revelations starting about halfway, and we will have definitely figured out a whole lot long before Piranesi does. But it doesn’t matter, because it turns out there’s a much deeper and more compassionate story being told here, about the human need to have a place of comfort and safety and care in a traumatizing world, where we can just be. Like Piranesi himself, this book leads us through our own labyrinths, where that place may be waiting for us, if we let ourselves find the way.