Susanna Clarke‘s first book was huge in size and hugely successful but we found it was not for us. Piranesi, her second book, written after many year’s hiatus is a little book which lands the reader in a strange, surreal existence where one doesn’t know what is happening or who the narrator, the eponymous Piranesi is. And yet one keeps reading through additions to Piranesi’s journals, strangely dated with the days and months past the day the albatrosses came to some hall or the other.
Piranesi is apparently only one of two human occupants in a series of massive buildings and halls populated by innumerable statues with the sea having submerged the lower levels and coming in further up during high tides. The only other life is fish in the sea and birds in some of the halls. Piranesi wanders through recording whatever he sees and mapping not just the labyrinthine halls but also the stars and the tides. Twice a week he meets the man he calls the Other since he is the only other live person in the place. One gets the impression that the Other is a coldly, detached person in contrast to Piranesi who is quite affectionate and grateful to all the little things the Other brings him. The reader’s curiosity as to where the labyrinth is situated, who the Other is and why Piranesi is there, carries one through the first half of the book when not much is happening. In fact Piranesi is the one who seems contented and on home ground whereas the reader is lost and confused. Fortunately the book is short and this feeling of confusion doesn’t last too long else it might have gotten boring and we don’t know if we would have had the staying power to see it through.
The novel, published timely during various lockdowns, provided us with another perspective on the concept of isolation and how one can keep going with a sense of routine and maintaining an aura of curiosity and wonderment even with daily, mundane occurrences. There is also something to be said about making up stories in one’s mind. Piranesi takes comfort from the stories and connections he has imagined between himself and the statues.
A strange , mystical kind of book, which is one of those rare books that transcend genre. We can’t bring ourselves to call it fantasy as it is a weird mixture of history, magic , psychology and transgressive philosophy. The novel has received rave reviews and is certainly worth reading because it is so very different to anything one can imagine.