Thursday, November 19, 2020

Review of Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

I can’t help it. I will start gushing—not at the conclusion of the review but at the beginning. Fans of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, one of the landmark novels of the 21st century, have waited sixteen years for Susanna Clarke’s follow up. And was the wait ever worth it. The time used to let every piece fall into its place, for every word to be to be precisely what the scene/motif/mood/story needed, and for the overarching idea to be relevant to both the human condition and the times, Clarke has achieved more in her 2020 novel Piranesi where there didn’t seem room to do so.

Ostensibly (emphasis on ‘ostensibly’) Piranesi is the story of a man whose life revolves around cataloging the endless, tide-washed halls of a timeless building littered with marble statues. Surviving on seaweed and fish, the only other inhabitant of the House is a man he calls The Other. The pair meeting weekly to compare notes on survival, a spanner is thrown into the works of their schedule when another person is reported to be walking the halls. Threat or friend, rumors and hearsay swirl, forcing the man to strike out on his own to learn the truth.

Truth he does learn, but it is a personal truth; the House retains its mystique. In this, Clarke pulls the ultimate rabbit out of the hat: resolving her story in fully satisfying fashion without revealing the secrets of her trade. A crystal that can be held in hand and turned at many angles to see how the colors and light refract, Piranesi exists on the page as much as it does in the mind, a coup de grace.

And let me gush about length. Where length in books on today’s market tend toward ‘buq squasher’ compared to those of the mid-20th century (fantastika may be the worst offender), Piranesi is a svelte 250+ pages. The idea is presented, it’s developed, it’s challenged, and it’s resolved, all with multiple layers of depth/interpretation. Can be done? Can be. Quality is truly a matter of substance, to which Piranesi is a testament.

In terms of style, Piranesi is inherently a British novel, no question. It possesses that Voice, unmistakable of the culture and its history. But where diction may be the descendent of writers like Priest, Wells, or Stevenson, the imagery and setting feel more akin to Borges or Calvino or Ballard. Abstract, there is nevertheless a concrete reality to their unreality. The man walking the halls of the House feels real, even as the reader knows no such place exists on Earth—part of the novel’s magic contained within this juxtaposition.

And theme? Well, gush, gush... One of the most amazing aspects of Piranesi is the variety of interpretation. Where such metaphorical/poetic novels run the risk of being too exact or too vague, Piranesi strikes a balance between the two—selective enough in its imagery to be unraveled in a variety of concrete directions. My notes hold the following: psychological journey, dream recount, personal transformation, fantastical exploration and survival, Jungian self-actualization, etc. There were even times in the beginning of the novel that I was wondering if Clarke was trying to pawn off something cheaply Greek in the symbolism. But it became apparent that, while working in the Western tradition, the story is likewise working with material more singular and personal—the point at which the proverbial rubber hits the road.

Readers who consider themselves lovers of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell would do well to think over Piranesi before purchasing. Tone is similar but not the same. Both stories seem to float in and out of “reality”. Both feature a kind of “war” between two men, and both feature strong symbolism. But the two remain unalike. There will definitely be fans of JS & Mr. N who strongly dislike Piranesi, vice versa, and a plethora of opinion between. Captain Obvious, you may say, but for those readers thinking of blindly jumping into Piranesi, at least be aware this is not a sequel, or a writer trying to cash in on what made their debut a success. Rather, this is a confident rumination with a singular vision that strikes different chords for it.

Admittedly it’s only November, there are a couple other books on my radar, and there are always great books that I find out about in the following year. But as of today, Piranesi is my book of the year. The imagery and possibility of the setting, the delicate power of the story, the human relevance (perennial and temporal), the precision of language, depth of metaphor—all speak to a novel that usurps the overwhelming majority of its peers. Granted, some might argue that is not a difficult feat given how saturated the market is with the ease of publishing these days. But I would argue that Piranesi is timeless. It transcends. Read it.

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