Susanna Clarke is a name in fantasy. Copies of her famous debut novel line the shelves of used bookstore fantasy sections, and public libraries keep multiple copies of it, a 700-page book from 2004. It’s crazy to think that she’s only written two novels, but her second, the much slimmer Piranesi packs just as heavy punch. It’s a story about a magical alternate dimension and the only man who seems to live in that world.
In an endless house filled with elaborate architecture and innumerable statues and regularly flooded by the ocean, a man conducts endless research, gathering data, and living off fish. He doesn’t remember his name but has been nicknamed “Piranesi.” Piranesi narrates the story through these journals, but he assures the reader he’s not alone but rather kept company by the fifteen skeletons he’s found and an arrogant scientist he calls the Other. However, as the Other warns of intruders within the labyrinth, Piranesi begins to doubt whether the Other really has his best intentions at stake and to question why he lives alone in this enormous house.
If, like me, you don’t understand who or what a Piranesi is, I recommend waiting to look it up after you’ve finished the book. A large part of the mastery of this book lies in the way it references other works or at least draws comparisons. Mismatched architecture and mysterious journals take me back to the robin-egg blue CD-ROM days of Myst. At the same time, the minimal cast and polished vocabulary makes me think of Christopher Nolan films. I feel like I’m writing this review at a wine tasting. However, nothing draws so many comparisons as Narnia, and intentionally so.
Piranesi has a dream about The Chronicles of Narnia, and his favorite among the multiple statues is a faun, but it’s the deviousness of his relationship to the Other than draws the most comparison. Like Lucy and Tumnus or Edmund and Jadis the White Witch, the Other lures Piranesi further and further into a fantastic yet barren world like Charn in The Magician’s Nephew. Piranesi’s world, too, is in a state of decay. Piranesi’s optimism in the face of it, while admirable, comes across as absurd as it slowly reveals just how many gaps Piranesi has in his memory.
Eventually, the Other loses patience with Piranesi’s repeated questions and accidents, and his condescending nature is revealed. The Other claims to be on a quest for arcane knowledge but needs Piranesi for whatever research he must conduct. It’s only a slow build to their inevitable confrontation because the word of this book is so carefully plotted. And despite its few number of characters, it’s an enchanting walk through an alternate world waiting to be explored, even as Piranesi tries to escape.
Four stars out of five.
Favorite quote: “One of the Statues that lined the Wall of the Staircase was all but engulfed in a blue-black carapace of mussels with only half a staring Face and one white, out-flung Arm left free.”