by Susanna Clarke
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted December 22, 2020
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I "read" Susanna Clarke's Piranesi in audible format, but the links above are for the hardcover. A paperback edition won't be available until next September. I got it as my second free audio book when I also acquired Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. For those who like audio books, this is very well done, read by the actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. Other than it being a fantasy, her second novel doesn't have much in common with her first. It's much shorter for one, and there are no footnotes. Since I don't do audio very often I haven't bothered learning how to bookmark a particular passage for reference later, but I did take notes, and did a few searches afterwards. I would like to have it in print too, since I do want to re-read it, and I'd like to do that right away if not for other books on my TBR. I haven't read more than a sentence or two of other reviews, and other than that just the synopsis at Amazon, but my first search came up with the name Giovanni Battista Piranesi, and descriptions of his life and work leads me to assume he is who Clarke was referencing. Or I should say, who "The Other" is referencing when he calls the first-person narrator "Piranesi." The narrator is not sure of his name himself, but doubts it is Piranesi.
The historical Piranesi was "an 18th Century Italian archaeologist, architect, and artist, famous for his etchings of Rome and of fictitious and atmospheric 'prisons'." That last part, and several of Piranesi's drawings, seem to be the inspiration for the story. The narrator lives in The House, which he also refers to as The World on occasion. It is a vast structure of hallways, chambers, stairways, vestibules, and niches, some empty, others full of statues of various people or animals, including mythical beasts such as minotaurs and fauns. He has named and numbered the different areas as to their compass direction, and their sequence as he discovered them. The title of the first journal entry is "When the Moon Rose in the Third Northern Hall I went to the Ninth Vestibule." The World encloses a large body of water in the lower quarters, the tides of which he has studied and charted so as to be prepared when various halls will be flooded. Piranesi, or whatever his name is, has to be one of the most unreliable narrators I've experienced, not out of any malicious intent to deceive or hide information, but because it is apparent he has forgetten information he previously knew. Either that, or portions of the journals he reads from were written by someone else. Except he recognizes the handwriting in those sections to be his own, but they reference things he doesn't remember, and words and concepts he does not understand. Words and phrases that are self-evident for the reader, such as "university" or "police," but which are indecipherable for him since they do not exist in The World. Yet he knows what a minotaur is, and names of different birds, such as an albatross. My first clue that things were definitely not as he seemed to think.
As far as he knows there have only been fifteen people in The World, himself and The Other being the only two still living. The other thirteen are only bones he has discovered in different halls, whom he has given names or descriptions based on their appearance, or artifacts he found near the bones. Some he can identify as male or female, for some he is not sure. He survives by fishing and gathering seaweed to eat, but has to rely on The Other for most everything else. He does not know where The Other finds the things he gives him, such as shoes, shirts, and other clothing. Sometimes it is material that Piranesi uses to weave fishing nets, or utensils for cooking and eating. He and The Other meet twice a week to discuss things, which consists mainly of The Other's search for "A Great and Secret Knowledge." He doesn't know where The Other is on the other days. It is only when he discovers what he thinks of as Journal #1 was previously marked as Journal #21, with the 2 scratched out on the cover but still discernable, does he begin piecing together the clues. It is in those early entries he finds the unremembered events. The headers for the entries also changed; early ones had a date, such as December 2011, later ones relate to an event; the "Thirtieth Day of the Twelfth Month in the Year of Weeping and Wailing," or the first entry in the novel (but not his first journal entry), "First Day of the Fifth Month in the Year the Albatross Came to the South-Western Halls." We don't get the explanation about the albatross event until later, since he isn't relating the journal entries in the sequence they were written.
I hesitate to say much more, other than the fact The World is either only in his head, just a concept, or maybe it's real but in an alternate dimension. What is its purpose? Why is he there, and why can he not remember how and when he arrived there? It is possible we learn those secrets ourselves, what his real name is, and how he came to be in The House, but he is reluctant to accept that information himself. Maybe he is Matthew Rose Sorensen, but he thinks that person is sleeping, secure and hidden deep inside his own body, and he is another entity altogether. He certainly has his own thoughts and desires. He wants to remain in The House even when he has the chance to leave it, and once he does leave it he returns to it on occasion. It's likely he will eventually return to stay…if not for a certain other person, the one who showed him the way to leave. Then again, she may wish to return to The House with him, since she feels adrift in the 'real' world herself. I might even want to visit The House myself one of these days. If the only way I can visit is to read this remarkable book again, I will do that.
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