Susanna Clarke’s second novel, Piranesi, is almost entirely unlike her landmark Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, with two exceptions. First, it is also fantasy. Second and much more importantly, it is also beautiful.
Piranesi take the form of a volume of the narrator’s journals. Thus, unlike JS&MN, which is told by an omniscient narrator, Piranesi is told in emphatically limited first person: the narrator knows a great deal about the House in which he lives, but very little about almost everything else. When the book opens, he has been exploring the apparently infinite House for several years: documenting the tides of the House’s ocean; cataloging the statues that crowd the thousands of halls; and visiting the several skeletons he has found, bringing them offerings and speaking to them so they know they are not alone.
The narrator believes the House and the World to be effectively the same, and to contain just two living people: himself and the Other, who he assists in searching the House for “a Great and Secret Knowledge.” “Piranesi” is what the Other calls the narrator: “Which is strange because as far as I remember it is not my name.”
After ten pages, the reader knows more about the narrator than he does about himself. After another fifty-ish, the narrator starts asking questions. Initially, the book’s momentum is created and maintained by the reader and narrator learning more, at different rates. A little before the halfway point, these processes of discovery intertwine with a conflict that prompts the characters’ actions for the rest of the book.
This is as good a time as any to note two things. First, this is not a book with a Big Shocking Twist; I’m being oblique to allow people to go in as unspoiled as they prefer, not because the reader should expect a Sixth Sense-style revelation. Second, this is a short book; my paper ARC ends on page 245 and says the hardcover will measure 5.5 x 8.25″, and I estimate its wordcount to be in the vicinity of 85k.
This length means that Piranesi has a deliberately tight focus. It is telling the story of the narrator during a very specific time period, and it is not interested in anything else. That story is about knowledge, faith, identity, and kindness; I thought it was told very well and found it genuinely lovely. However, there were several aspects of the story that I would gladly have learned more about, and I suspect I won’t be alone in this.
Finally, there are two minor things that potential readers might find useful to know. First, the narrator liberally capitalizes nouns, which I found distracting for a surprisingly long time. Second, at one point the narrator characterizes homosexuality as “transgressive” in a context that put me on edge, but ultimately I concluded that neither he nor the text were making any moral judgment.
I deliberately framed this review as a comparison to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell because that was inevitably one of the questions on my mind as I started reading. (Less so, however, once I saw the size of the ARC.) Anyone who reads this book in search of only “something just like JS&MN” will almost certainly be disappointed: unless the “something” they are looking for is a lingering sense of warmth, wonder, and fulfillment. I’m happy to say that I found those things in Piranesi, and if it sounds appealing to you, I hope you do as well.