Susanna Clarke is a member of the elite group of authors who don’t write enough. In 2004, the bestselling debut from a cookery book editor seemed to promise an unfailing fountain of the creative imagination: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, a three-volume reworking of Britain’s military tussle with Napoleon, but with added fairies, felt like Jane Austen brewed up with spells and a dash of the Brontës’ Angria sagas. A short story collection, The Ladies of Grace Adieu, set in the same eerie territory, followed, and since then — silence.
Piranesi is a publishing event, therefore. Austere and classical, it has no fairies but plenty of magic. The title character lives secluded in a mansion of dizzying perspectival queasiness. He has never reached its limits; with its uncountable series of enfilades, his adored ‘House’ is impossibly extensive, many kilometers long, periodically washed by tides and invaded by seabirds. Clouds occasionally pass through its vast halls. Piranesi eats nourishing soups made of seaweed and mussels, and goes fishing, perched on the head or shoulders of one of the many neoclassical statues emerging from the deep.
Piranesi seems entirely happy in his solitude, carefully keeping a journal of the eventful ‘Year the Albatross Came to the South-Western Halls’. What with cataloguing the hundreds of bizarre statues, plotting the labyrinth (‘I have traveled as far as the Nine-Hundredth-and Sixtieth Hall to the West’) and simply keeping warm and alive, he has plenty to occupy his time. Along the way he has discovered skeletal remains of other humans, which he tends and personalizes. One is ‘Biscuit Box Man’ — strange artifacts have washed up here. Another is ‘the Folded Up Child’. Piranesi seems to be unaware that within a labyrinth you generally get a monster.
There is one other living person he periodically contacts, and here’s where the House begins to betray its conceptual instability. How come the Other is always impeccably and variably dressed, unlike Piranesi in his rags and shells? What is the shiny device the Other carries? The Other makes incomprehensible references to ‘Batter-Sea’, brings him multivitamins and shoes (where from?) and warns him about possible incursions from the evil ‘16’. Piranesi, so limited in knowledge and experience, must use logic to survive. Whether he is better off in isolation, with all its poverty and limitation or safer seeking out human contact is the question posed in this dazzling fable about loneliness, imagination and memory.