by Luke Frostick
It is a great loss to fantasy readers that Susanna Clarke has been unable to write more novels. Since writing the groundbreaking Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a chronic fatigue condition has made writing difficult for her. However, she has managed to produce a new book entitled Piranesi and it is great.
What made Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell such an evocative book for me when I read it in my early twenties was that its approach to the fantastic felt very severed from all the other fantasy books I was reading around the same time. Its vivid imagination and carefully constructed world lent it a uniqueness that fantasy should always aspire towards, but often falls short of.
As I hoped it would, Piranesi has that same feeling; like it is being beamed in from outside the genre bubble, though it does draw quite a bit from the Narnia. Moreover, although the book maintains an interest in magic and in other dimensions layered onto our own, it is not simply interested in retreading the same ground as Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, but creates its own tone and identity.
The book starts with Piranesi explaining the world contained as it is within a single vast building. It has the sea in its lower halls and the sky in its upper ones. It is a world made up of one great house, with stone halls and huge statues of everything from mythological creatures to mundane scenes. In the first few pages he lists all the people living in the world, fifteen in total, thirteen of whom are dead.
He lives a serene life amongst the statues, divining the language of birds, living off the fruits of the sea. Along with his mysterious and cranky partner, The Other, they do scientific experiments to attempt to understand the house and the world and perhaps unlock the secret powers contained there.
Piranesi’s name itself is the first hint we get that everything is not as everything seems. His namesake is the 18th century Giovanni Battista Piranesi who was famous for etching the Roman monuments of Italy. Moreover, he was noted for not only documenting the existing antiquities of Rome, but also for “designing fantastic complexes of buildings that could exist only in dreams,” such as the one our hero finds himself inhabiting. A real historic figure from our world that can not possibly exist in the world of The House.
Beyond his name being impossible, it quickly becomes clear that Piranesi’s memory is faulty, that his account of the world, its nature and his role within it is extremely unreliable. This sets up the story of Piranesi trying to work out the secrets of the world and uncover his mysterious origins. I really liked the way that Clarke uses language as the principle way of showing that Piranesi’s view of the world is completely wrong. When we join him, he tells us that the labyrinth of statues and stone rooms that make up the house is the whole world.
However, he uses vocabulary such as “Christmas cake” that he couldn’t possibly have known if our world didn’t also exist and Piranesi wasn’t in some way connected with it. This speaks to a problem of language that fantasy authors often struggle with while writing other worlds, what language is and isn’t usable in that world’s context. Having that tension that is so much part of the fantasy genre directly plugged into the narrative as a key part of the plot was a touch that I really appreciated
This use of language also fits into the novel’s own reflections on rationality. Piranesi sees himself as rational. Thus, he holds that his assumptions about the world must be correct, leaving him completely blind to the truth of his situation. Moreover, that rationality works against him as he is forced to deal with new information about his situation and the world that he is in.
If Piranesi were more skeptical of his own judgment, he would quite quickly start to see the truth of his own situation. It’s an important lesson that humans need to learn and relearn themselves over and over again though history. I’m sure you can all think of a public intellectual or two whose certainty in their own rationality leaves them completely oblivious to the inaccuracies in their own opinions and positions.
Throughout the book Piranesi’s trust in his own understanding of the world breaks down as does his sense of freedom. Piranesi starts the book blissfully free. However, the more he learns, the more visible his chains become.
The central plot of Piranesi working out the truth of the world an his own place in it is well executed, but the mystery itself could have been a bit more elaborate. The reader is given enough pieces early on that they can work out what is happening and the story doesn’t subvert that expectation as the novel reaches its climax.
The majority of the fantastical elements of the book are the existence of the house and its connection to our world. The book does have magic, but it is not as overt and powerful a magic as in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. It instead draws on real world magical traditions. Some of the characters perform Golden Dawn style ritual magic, with that system’s emphasis on correspondences. However, the book dismisses that form of magic in favour of a broader animistic truth.
One of the ideas that runs through Piranesi is that ancient people were more connected to an animistic understanding of the universe and humanity’s place in it and our modern detachment from it is detrimental to us. This, come to think of it, is a theme that is reflected in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. I thought that, although the use of animism in fantasy is something I’m always excited about, the book does not offer much more than a surface reading of animistic philosophy and practice. I also feel that portraying it solely as a lost form of human understanding is narrow given that round the world there are still many cultures with a lived animist worldview.
The book is also keen to show the dark side of some forms of magical practice not in the supernatural sense, but in the way that tight-knit orders dedicated to perusing arcane knowledge can very easily -with manipulative, charismatic leaders- become cult-like hotbeds of abuse and tragedy.
Piranesi is fun, beautifully written with a tight story. It is so great to see Clarke publishing again. I am not one of the people desperately clamouring for more from Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Though I love that book, it works fine on its own and I’m not going to ask for a sequel for a sequel’s sake. I do, however, hope that there will be more of Clarke’s work coming out and she is able to explore her unique understanding of the fantastical in more books because Piranesi was a joy and a joy that I certainly need more of.
Originally appeared in Three Crows Magazine Issue #9