Monday, September 14, 2020

Review: 'Piranesi'

 ©2020 All Rights Reserved Lynne Perednia

By Susanna Clarke

The flooding waters are rising, and getting closer. A lone person scrambles into a safe niche among the marble statues filling a hall. The water recedes. And that lone person resumes his ongoing task of chronicling the world in which he lives.

That world is one of endless halls filled with marble statues, each one unique, and an ocean enclosed within the house that contains those halls. There are birds and no other humans, save one. The Other, who meets with our lone narrator twice a week, never stays long.

The lone person is called Piranesi by The Other. And in this new novel by Susanna Clarke, who brought the brilliant saga of Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrell to life, Piranesi's world is both enchanting and strange. Piranesi is a careful observer and chronicler of his world. It's uncertain how he knows some things and how he came to be. There are 13 others, but they are the skeletal remains of people he never knew in life.

During the regular meetings with The Other, he urges Piranesi for specific kinds of information to aid his own search for some Great and Special Knowledge. Although Piranesi is willing to help out, he begins to question the thesis when new information presents itself, or himself. There may be a 16th, another person. The way that The Other regards this stranger recalls the overbearing, nearly cult-like leaders of Iris Murdoch's books. Soon there are vibes that recall Tartt's The Secret History.

Piranesi also has a deep philosophical reason for not wanting to pursue this search for knowledge. As he puts it, if the House where he lives is merely a riddle to be solved, then solving the riddle will leave the House as nothing more than scenery. The House, as he calls it, is literally his world. Every inch of it means more than scenery to him.

He also likes the idea of abandoning this specific search because it would free him to go wherever his discoveries and accumulation of data may lead. To pursue knowledge of its own sake, as one fact leads to another, is something that obviously inspires Piranesi. 

Indeed, one of the lovely aspects of reading this novel is seeing how Piranesi is fascinated by and in awe of his world. As the story progresses, this is something that does not fade and does not disappoint.

Without saying whether the mysteries set up in the story are solved, it is important to note that the novel holds up and does not disappoint. There is another grand idea that Clarke explores fearlessly, but bringing it up is too close to being a spoiler. But that grand idea is key to this remarkable storytelling. Reading Piranesi is as exciting a discovery as any of the great world-building novels of the past few decades, including not only Clarke's debut, but also The Shadow of the Wind and Erin Morgenstern's novels.

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