Moving Through Trauma in Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi

In the lead-up to the 2021 Hugo Awards, we’re taking time to appreciate this year’s best novel Finalists, and what makes each of them great.

More than a decade passed between Susanna Clarke’s last literary offering, The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, and Piranesi, her second novel. Clarke rose to fame with her devastatingly fantastic doorstopper of a debut, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. It’s hard to imagine anything living up to the heights that book set, but Piranesi does.

Note: This post contains spoilers.

The story is told through entries in a series of journals by our narrator, a man who is at first nameless, then called Piranesi, then finally known by the name given to him by his parents. He lives in a House of endless Halls, some smothered in clouds, some drowned by churning waters, and most dry and inhabitable. Besides the narrator, the Halls are populated by strange statues, wandering birds, enough seafood to survive on, and the bones of previous inhabitants who died years before the narrator’s arrival.

There is also The Other, a man who the narrator believes lives in another Hall far away. The Other visits twice a week to boss the narrator around and bring him things he needs, such as shoes, a sleeping bag, bowls, and so on. It is The Other who names him Piranesi (“It is what he calls me,” says our narrator. “Which is strange because as far as I remember it is not my name”). Two other people make appearances—an old man Piranesi calls The Prophet and a mysterious 16th person The Other warns Piranesi against interacting with—and with them come the beginning of the end. Between his conversations with 16 and The Prophet and the recovery of his old journals, Piranesi discovers what The Other (real name Ketterley) did to him, and what the House took from him.

Trauma is a helluva thing. When you’re in the depths of it, it consumes you whole, becomes the way you move through the world. When you think you’ve passed it, something small and unremarkable will happen that will unexpectedly thrust you right back into it. You can learn to live with it, sometimes you can even learn to let it go, but some of it will always be with you, haunting you like a lost soul wandering through an empty house.

As he progresses through the story, our narrator’s mind fractures into three versions of himself, the man he was before the World, the man he becomes after the World blurs his mind, and the man he becomes when he leaves the World. The trauma he experiences being trapped in the Halls overwhelms him until the only way he can survive is to give himself over to his circumstances. To Piranesi, it’s as if the man he was before goes to sleep and Piranesi emerges from the silence. Likewise, when our narrator finally frees himself, Piranesi steps back and a new man takes over.

But like everything Clarke does, Piranesi is not just one thing. It is also a meditation on chronic illness and how, like trauma, it can colonize your life. In an interview with NPR, Clarke discussed the parallels between Piranesi’s isolated life and her own: “I was aware while I was writing it that I was somebody who’d become incapacitated by illness, who is to a large extent housebound and cut off from people. And I was writing a story about someone who lives largely alone, but in a vast house, in a house in which there are many, many things to explore and many avenues of exploration, and there’s still knowledge to be found and still wonders to be seen, and there’s still beauty to fill your eyes, even though you are cut off from a lot of other things.” Like Piranesi, Clarke found a way not to overcome her illness but to work within and around it. They were both able to exist in a space they did not want to be in, even when it meant no longer being the same people they were before.

We can also examine the story through the lens of colonialism and racism. Piranesi doesn’t comprehend race, but The Other certainly does. Clarke does nothing without reason. While other white characters found their doom in the Halls or locked away in the walls of some creepy old man’s home, it is Matthew Rose Sorensen, a British Ghananian man, whose perspective we witness. He describes himself as “a prisoner, a slave” of Ketterley, phrasing a Black man would not say lightly. Ketterley has locked him in the Halls, forcing him to do his bidding. He rarely thinks of Piranesi’s needs—to the point where he doesn’t even notice when the man no longer has shoes, socks, or decent clothing—except when they impede him doing a task. He doesn’t even bother greeting Piranesi or asking how he’s doing. Why would he? Matthew/Piranesi is a tool, a thing, a beast of burden.

The longer he says in the House, the more Matthew Rose Sorensen’s very identity and sense of self are stripped away. He finds a form of control in his uncontrollable world by tracking the tides and searching for meaning in the movements of the birds and the expressions of the statues, but it’s false. He is subject to the environment and the whims of a capricious white man just as enslaved Africans were a century and a half before. The trauma is more than the act of being imprisoned, it’s the overarching history of slavery. Matthew/Piranesi is not like Ketterley’s slave; he is his slave.

I don’t know how much Clarke knows of drapetomania, but Ketterley’s warning to Piranesi that 16 will drive him mad if they speak made me think of that. Without straying too far afield, drapetomania was a fake mental illness created by a pro-slavery Southern doctor, Samuel A. Cartwright, that basically said enslaved Africans who ran away were suffering from a disorder caused by slaveholders not punishing their slaves hard enough and that they should be “treated like children to prevent and cure them.” We see a lot of that in Ketterley’s behavior toward Piranesi. If Matthew is enslaved, then 16, or Sarah Raphael as she is known outside the World, is the abolitionist aiding in securing his freedom. The Haitian Revolution inspired deep fear across the slaveholding South, and slave rebellions, revolutions, and uprisings were not uncommon on American soil. As the slaveholders tried to suppress enslaved people by banning learning to read and write, likewise Ketterley tries to stop Piranesi from reading 16’s messages and interacting with her.

Ketterley sees the Halls as a scientific endeavor from which he can gain untold wealth and power. It is a resource to be catalogued and exploited. Piranesi is often frustrated by his compatriot’s inability to see the House as a thing to be respected. Using Piranesi, Ketterley plots how to stripmine everything of value from it and leave only ruin behind. But the World is not like our world. He cannot take or destroy. He may see himself as akin to the Manifest Destiny fanatics who slaughtered and plowed their way west, but he is really one of the countless explorers who died trying and failing to “tame” the wilderness. He is a colonizer who gets his comeuppance.

All of this is barely scratching the surface of Piranesi. I re-read the book for this piece and uncovered so many things I hadn’t picked up on during my first read, and I expect when I read it again in the future I’ll find even more. It is a novel that needs to be read again and again and again. It is truly astonishing.

Alex Brown is an Ignyte award-winning critic who writes about speculative fiction, librarianship, and Black history. Find them on twitter (@QueenOfRats), instagram (@bookjockeyalex), and their blog (bookjockeyalex.com).

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