The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.
What is it?
Piranesi is the long awaited second novel by Susanna Clarke of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell acclaim. It was published in 2020, sixteen years after Strange and Norrell, and and fourteen years after her last writing venture, a 2006 collection of short stories titled The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories.
It is not a sequel to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, but instead a mystery novel in a fantastical setting. Specifically, it is what is coming to be known as an ontological mystery: a mystery where characters find themselves in a strange place and situation with no idea how they've gotten there. In this case, the place happens to be a never ending house the size of a universe, filled with statues and oceans.
What's it about?
In the year of The Albatross Came to the South-Western Hall, the narrator (who is pretty sure his name isn't actually Piranesi, but can't think of an alternative) lives in the House, which is to say, the world. The House is expansive and likely eternal; in the five years since he's starting keeping track in his journals, the narrator has explored 960 of the halls to the west, 819 to the north, and 768 to the south, and knows that he is nowhere near finished in his explorations. He's gone up to the higher levels that are filled with clouds, and while he doesn't go in the waterlogged "drowned" lower levels, he does fish from them from the safety of higher floors. In some places, the grandiose Halls of the House have been destroyed by age or weather or the eternal crashing waves, and the classical-style statues that fill all the Halls are broken or overgrown.
Piranesi's only fleeting human companion is the Other, a man who never travels far from the First Hall, a man who only appears on Tuesdays to ask questions about the House, and to search for some ill-defined ancient wisdom that the Other is certain will give them some kind of magical power. It is he who gave Piranesi the name Piranesi.
Piranesi doesn't much care for any of the possible uses of power the Other talks about (except for perhaps the ability to turn into a bird), but instead enjoys the glorious benevolence of the House as an end unto itself. The tides of the House provide fish and seaweed, the birds provide company, and the innumerable statues provide beauty and purpose (as Piranesi has taken it upon himself to document them all). It is a simple, but rewarding life to be a Child of the House.
But. . .
Through the armor of his naivete, questions begin to nag at Piranesi. Questions like, "why are there pages of my journal missing?" and, "why do I know words like 'university' and 'garden' when no such things exist in the world?" and "do trees exist?" And soon Piranesi is forced to confront the mounting evidence that not everything is as it seems in his home.
What did you think?
The story is pretty short, beautifully written, and very snappy plot-wise. Everything comes together in a satisfactory way, and though there is definitely a melancholy air, there are also moments of happiness and hope; Piranesi takes all troubles caused by the House in stride, thankful for the benevolence it shows him. His attitude is that of the ideal religious devout, always interpreting every joy as a gift from the House, every ill as a lesson, and then finding the joy in every ill.
It's also way shorter than Clarke's last book, and the plot is much simpler-- in that there is only one plot, as opposed to 500 separate ones. If you're worried about it being another dictionary-sized commitment, don't be.
The story of Piranesi's release is bittersweet. While Clarke has been planning a sequel to Strange and Norrell since 2004, she found herself unable to complete it due to her health; in a recent interview with the New Yorker, she and her husband describe how she collapsed one day for no apparent reason, and hasn't been the same since. Her doctors went through several diagnoses before settling on migraines and chronic fatigue syndrome, which itself lead to extreme depression and agoraphobia. Regarding her illness, and its sudden appearance after the publication of her first book, Clarke has said,
"Several people have pointed this out to me—that, having written a long book in which there was a nineteenth-century illness, I then had a nineteenth-century illness. Or that I wrote a long book in which there was this sort of enchantment, and then fell into this strange enchantment myself. It’s absolutely right. You really shouldn’t annoy fairies, or write about them—they don’t like it very much.”
When she was able to write, the intricate complexities of any Strange and Norrell follow up were out of the question, and so she started work on Piranesi instead.
While reading, I was engrossed enough with the story that, I though I knew the backstory, I didn't take any of it into account. Now, having gotten the post-book high/malaise out of my system, I can see how intimately the subject matter is intertwined with things like depression and agoraphobia. Piranesi begins the book with no identity, in a House he's intimately familiar with and loves, but also has no idea the true nature of and cannot escape. The big internal conflict he faces is accepting that the life he is living is something that needs to be examined under scrutiny. In retrospect, it may ring familiar for a lot of people who've found themselves homebound or withdrawn, for people who've felt extended periods of mental fog where things that are unquestionably important slip the mind, but you can't be bothered to try and remember it. Even his general living state is uncomfortably familiar; Piranesi is ragged. He's been living off fish soup and seaweed for years, his hair is filled with garbage he finds, his clothes are worn and torn from the elements, and until a third into the novel, he's running around barefoot. He sleeps like a homeless man in a sleeping bag amid the sea garbage and rubble, and though he speaks of it all with nothing but joy, anyone whose had a depressive funk and woken up weeks later to find their homes filled with trash might be seeing some parallels.
A rut is comfortable, and change is hard. Piranesi is industrious and busy and considers himself a studious and scientific mind, but he's still a guy in a comfortable garbage rut, resisting anything that may shake his understanding and enjoyment of his life until it becomes impossible to ignore.
Those thoughts aside, the novel Piranesi deserves all the recent praise it's been getting. I hope the book signifies Susanna Clarke's triumphant return to writing, as she really is an immeasurable talent, but if it isn't then that she should have this novel as her first release in ages and also her last seems almost fitting. This is a soft, fragile story. It is comforting, but it's a delicate and brittle kind of comfort, that acknowledges the beauty and the sadness in the world and ultimately comes out on the side of hope, where escape is always an option.
10/10, do recommend.
Suddenly I saw in front of me the Statue of the Faun, the Statue that I love above all others. There was his calm, faintly smiling face; there was his forefinger gently pressed to his lips. In the past I have always thought he meant to warn me of something with that gesture: Be careful! But today it seemed to mean something quite different: Hush! Be comforted!