A Tale of Isolation

Susanna Clarke made a remarkable literary debut in 2004. Her debut novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell stirred quite the sensation, garnering notice in both commercial and critical aspects. It took her a decade to complete it and her hard work paid off for not only was it a local success, it was also a global sensation. The novel earned Clarke a score of accolades, such as being adjudged as the Time’s Best Novel of the Year. Clarke found herself in an unexpected position, and her name instantly became household name. She did follow up her initial success two years later with a short story collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories (2006). And just as quickly as she appeared out of the blue, she disappeared from the public’s view.

In 2020, Clarke made her long-awaited return into the literary world, sixteen years after her first. The upcoming publication of Piranesi was a welcome news for all the devout fans and literary pundits whose respect and admiration she earned with her first novel. In Piranesi, Clarke transports her readers to a seemingly subterranean world dominated by a singular but sprawling mansion. The labyrinthine structure contains an endless amount of halls, with neither formal entrances and exits, propped with an equally uncountable number of statues. Like an island out of nowhere, the House was surrounded by bodies of water. The lower parts of the House get submerged at certain times of the day or in some particular days.

Despite its size, the House has only one denizen, the titular Piranesi. As the only inhabitant of the massive, half-ruined structure, he has surveilled majority of the structure, spending days exploring its various halls, scouring its every nook and cranny. He took everything in – the birds, the statues, the halls – and recorded his observations in his journal which also acted as his diary. he also took note of the patterns of when the tides temporarily reclaim parts of the house. It was his diary, and his observations that the structure of the novel relied on. In an abandoned and isolated place, Piranesi built what he referred to as the World.

“In my mind are all the tides, their seasons, their ebbs and their flows. In my mind are all the halls, the endless procession of them, the intricate pathways. When this world becomes too much for me, when I grow tired of the noise and the dirt and the people, I close my eyes and I name a particular vestibule to myself; then I name a hall.”

~ Susanna Clarke, Piranesi

Piranesi has no recollection of living anywhere else except in the House. Or at least, he has inhabited the halls of the House from 2012 until the Year the Albatross Came to the South-Western Halls. However, Piranesi is not fully alone. Every Tuesday and Friday evening, for a limited time, he meets and dines with an enigmatic character he simply referred to as the “Other”. The Other keeps Piranesi company and their twice-a-week tête-à-têtes serve as a disruption from a quotidian existence that has turned routinary. It was through these discourses that the readers get to know both characters better. Aside from the Other, Piranesi also found company in a set of skeletons he found in the halls. In one of Piranesi’s entries, he related: “Since the World began it is certain that there have existed fifteen people. Possibly there have been more; but I am a scientist and must proceed according to the evidence. Of the fifteen people whose existence is verifiable, only Myself and the Other are now living.”

Piranesi’s domesticated existence in the House glided along as always. However, the natural flow of things got disrupted when mysterious messages started appearing on the walls of the House. Piranesi’s interest and curiosity was piqued. As questions started to filling his mind, he tried to trace the provenance of these cryptic inscriptions while trying to decipher their message. Could there be someone else living in the massive halls of the House? Could they somehow know something about the skeletons inhabiting some of the halls? As far as Piranesi knew, he was the solitary inhabitant of the hall but he could never be sure of that. After all, it was a colossal structure and there were parts of the House that Piranesi is yet to explore or unlock.

On her long-awaited return to the world of the published text, Clarke explored the vast realm of solitude and isolation through the story of Piranesi and the House. It was a remarkable and fascinating world but there was no one else to appreciate its beauty except for Piranesi, and perhaps the Other. Ironically, Piranesi didn’t seem to be bothered by his singular existence. He always found something to do and to occupy his time. Piranesi’s world, after all, was teeming with life. Various avian species nest in the empty halls, vestiges of their presence are everywhere, and their chirps echo on the walls. Piranesi managed to sustain himself by catching fishes from the sea. He relied on his notes and observations to time his fishing expeditions.

At the onset, as Piranesi described his environment, the House felt like a microcosm. It was a sanctuary and a safe haven. However, as the narrative moved forward, despite the House’s vastness and Piranesi’s liberty to explore its halls and vestibules, the House started to feel like a virtual prison. Despite the flourish of Clarke’s prose, the House’s atmosphere felt claustrophobic. A quick search of the book’s unusual but curiosity-inducing name would yield the name of an 18th Italian artist, Classical archeologist and architect. Govanni Battista Piranesi is known for his etchings of Rome but his most renowned work is a series of 16 prints aptly titled The Prisons (Carceri d’invenzione or Imaginary Prisons). Imaginary Prisons are illustrations of a vivid and vast subterranean world brimming with vaults, stairs, and machines.

“The knowledge we seek isn’t something new. It’s old. Really old. Once upon a time people possessed it and they used it to do great things, miraculous things. They should have held on to it. They should have respected it. But they didn’t. They abandoned it for the sake of something they called progress. And it’s up to us to get it back. We’re not doing this for ourselves; we’re doing it for humanity.”

~ Susanna Clarke, Piranesi

Beyond the isolation, the story of Piranesi is one of survivalism, ingenuity, and resourcefulness. Finding one’s self in a strange world can be disorienting. One easily loses one’s senses but Piranesi was quick to recover his wits, despite his amnesia. Primal instincts kicked in and he slowly learned how to live in his new world. Perhaps more importantly, the novel subtly underscored the definition of contentment, of simply basking in the beauty of one’s environment, bereft of the materialism that is prevalent in the contemporary. Piranesi did not have to grapple with the impulses of the ego. His story was all about living in the present, sans the weight and pressures of the past.

What propelled the narrative was Piranesi. He was an unusual character whose provenance leaves a big question mark at the start of the narrative. Without a past, he was the child of the house. It didn’t take long to warm up to him because he was filled with kindness and joyous wonder. He held high respect for the House, appreciative of its beauty and the kindness that it has extended to him. He also possesses an innocence and naïveté that make him openly accept things as they are, forever thankful for what they have provided. He extends his respect to all the denizens of the House, even religiously taking care of the thirteen skeletal remains he discovered. His kindness, whilst endearing, can be frustrating at times. He trusts too easily and is oblivious to the intentions of those around him.

But Piranesi is but one piece of a huge puzzle. The novel contains elements of mystery and suspense but being swept by them will make one miss the novel’s merits. What truly elevated the narrative was the quality of Clarke’s storytelling and prose. Whilst her worldbuilding was on-point and was fascinating, it was her uncanny ability of making the readers walk through the hall of the House that was impressive. Building a world from scratch was one thing but making readers walk its halls and its spaces was another thing. With Piranesi as the tour guide, it was easy to imagine walking down the halls, inspecting the statues, and basking in the Houses’s endless wonders. Clarke painted a vivid picture where the readers can situate themselves without much trouble.

As the novel takes its course, the mystery started to unravel. The magic that riveted the readers at the beginning also started to lose its luster and wonder. Out of the shadow of mystery, the truth stepped out. The answers to the questions lingering at the start of the narrative were now provided. The shroud that surrounded Piranesi’s identity was pieced and his real story and his provenance were unveiled. The execution, however, was a little rushed, bereft of the careful construction that Clarke utilized in conjuring the House. But the novel did well on many aspect that it was barely diminished by the story’s less than stellar conclusion. In Piranesi’s words: “I thought that in this new (old) world the statues would be irrelevant. I did not imagine that they would continue to help me. But I was wrong. When faced with a person or situation I do not understand, my first impulse is still to look for a statue that will enlighten me.”

“This experience led me to form a hypothesis: perhaps the wisdom of birds resides, not in the individual, but in the flock, the congregation. I have tried to think of an experiment that would test this theory. The problem, as I see it, is that it is impossible to know in advance when such events will occur; and so the only viable course of action is months – more likely years – of careful observation and meticulous record keeping.”

~ Susanna Clarke, Piranesi

The focus on a limited number of characters contributed to the sense of claustrophobia and isolation. With the lockdown restrictions that has been imposed in various parts of the world, Piranesi is a vivid depiction of the plight most of mankind find themselves in at the moment. But whilst Clarke may have not intended for Piranesi to be a reflection of our time, its talk of isolation and solitude make it a very timely read. In stark dichotomy to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell’s gargantuan size, Piranesi is slimmer. Nevertheless, Piranesi upheld the merits of Clarke’s prose. These merits were recognized by many a literary pundit and just recently, it was shortlisted as one of six novels in the run for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Interestingly, despite the revelations at the end, the story does leave a sense of quandary, of some levels of enigma. Its surrealistic attributes does not fit into any particular category. Walking the vestibules of the House was a delightful experience. And it works just fine: “I realised that the search for the Knowledge has encouraged us to think of the House as if it were a sort of riddle to be unravelled, a text to be interpreted, and that if ever we discover the Knowledge, then it will be as if the Value has been wrested from the House and all that remains will be mere scenery.”

Ratings

81%

Characters (30%) – 27%
Plot (30%) – 22%
Writing (25%) – 21%
Overall Impact (15%) – 11%

In a way, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was a memorable read for me. I can vividly recall how thick it is for it is nearly a thousand pages long. It was a verbose text, brimming with adventure, suspense, and action. The magic, the war, the haze, it was an otherworldly experience, almost at par with Harry Potter and Hogwarts. I did struggle reading it because I was struggling with some inner demons, which perhaps impaired my appreciation of some of the merits of Clarke’s prose. When I learned that she was publishing a new work, her second novel, and almost two decades since her first, I was a mixture of apprehension and excitement. I did not originally want to read it but the curiosity was burgeoning. Imagine my surprise when I saw it was about one-fifth of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Without any more ado, I read Piranesi and it was surely a delight. It had strong elements which were woven together by Clarke’s prose to come up with a lush tapestry. The worldbuilding was fascinating. The suspense was gripping. The conclusion was subpar but it was nevertheless an insightful read. It maybe mind boggling at points but Piranesi is a riveting tale that also ironically captures our recent plight.

Book Specs

Author:  Susanna Clarke
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Publishing Date: September 2020
Number of Pages: 245
Genre: Fantasy, Literary Fiction

Synopsis

Piranesi lives in the House.
Perhaps he always has.

In his notebooks, day after day, he makes a clear and careful record of its wonders: the labyrinth of halls, the thousands upon thousands of statues, the tides that thunder up staircases, the clouds that move in slow procession through the upper halls.

On Tuesdays and Fridays Piranesi sees his friend, the Other. At other times he brings tributes of food and waterlilies to the Dead. But mostly, he is alone.

Messages begin to appear, scratched out in chalk on the pavements. There is someone new in the House. But who are they and what do they want? Are they a friend or do they bring destruction and madness as the Other claims?

Lost texts must be found; secrets must be uncovered. The world that Piranesi thought he knew is becoming strange and dangerous.

The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.

About the Author

To learn more about Susanna Clarke, click here.