Susanna Clarke’s 2020 Piranesi is a stand-alone fantasy novel.
The labyrinthine Halls are vast. Within them live two men: one nicknamed Piranesi by his companion, the other dubbed the Other by the so-called Piranesi. Piranesi doubts that “Piranesi” is his true name. However, this does not matter to him. He has more important concerns.
The network of Halls and corridors may be endless. Nevertheless, Piranesi does his best to meticulously chart them (what they contain, what happens in them). This is only partly due to intellectual curiosity; it is also a matter of survival. The maze is large enough to contain an ocean. Understanding the great tides that wash through the lower Halls means the difference between surviving and drowning.
The Other pursues the Great and Secret Knowledge that the Other is convinced can be found within the labyrinth. He has performed ritual after ritual, but all have proved futile. Some defeatists might believe that this shows that the supposed Great and Secret Knowledge is a mirage. But the Other is made of stubborner stuff. Failure only provokes doubled effort.
Piranesi, so-called, and the Other are the only two living persons in the great maze. They are not the only persons. There are thirteen skeletons, each of whom has their own Piranesi-supplied cognomen. Although their conversational skills are lacking, Piranesi treats the dead as companions.
Thus, when it seems that a stranger is intruding into Piranesi’s world, it is only natural that Piranesi should dub the newcomer “16.” Piranesi wonders if the newcomer will be a friend. The Other firmly is sure that 16 is an enemy. A deadly enemy. If Piranesi were to even speak to 16, he would be risking his sanity.
Or so the Other assures Piranesi. As far as Piranesi knows, the Other can be trusted. But just how trustworthy are the memories on which Piranesi relies to assess the Other’s trustworthiness?
I tackled this book in part because I am steeling myself to read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and in part because it’s this month’s selection for my Stories for Algernon Book Club. Nothing is more likely to ensure that I read something than the prospect of having to write a review.
Unlike its setting, the novel is not vast, possibly infinite. In fact, it is quite short. The author does not have the luxury to languorously develop the setting. Instead, she reveals it with focused efficiency. One might read the book just for the marvelous setting and the disciplined but beguiling description thereof.
The same is true of the central mystery at the core of the novel, a mystery of which the person called Piranesi is entirely unaware, at least in the beginning of the book. The path between the first hints that there are things that the protagonist really really needs to know and the final resolution is short and to the point.
The antagonist must have been greatly alarmed as their cunning plans quickly began to crumble.
The cast is similarly constrained—just
three four living people and a small collection of carefully preserved skeletons—but the characters are vivid, unforgettable. They are just sufficient for the needs of the tale.
Beauty, efficiency: the hallmarks of this quick moving mystery. Which makes me wonder just how more complex I will find Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which is sitting across the room from me right now … looking huge. If Clarke can fit this much into a single slim volume, how much more will fit into the larger tome?
Tune in later for a review of JS&MN. How much later depends on my reading stamina.