Uncannily Peaceful: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

I often dream about water. Floods, rains, storms at sea, currents of water bearing me away. Sometimes I struggle to keep my head above its surface. Occasionally I fly or sail above it. But more often than not, my dreams are watery.

Susanna Clarke’s long-anticipated second novel, Piranesi, fantastically combines these two elements. It has a dreaminess to it. And it has a lot of ocean. To me, the book felt both perfectly natural—calming, even—and perfectly unsettling. A strange combination, perhaps, but bear with me.

Piranesi tells the story of the title character, who lives in a vast House (he has never been able to walk to the end of it, and he alternately refers to it as “the World”) full of marble arches and endless enormous statues. Piranesi lives in the Middle Halls, which he describes as “the Domain of birds and of men.”

The Lower Halls are the Domain of the Tides; their Windows — when seen from across a Courtyard — are grey-green with the restless Waters and white with the spatter of Foam….The Upper Halls are, as I have said, the Domain of the Clouds; their Windows are grey-white and misty.”

Piranesi

In this extraordinary, elemental House Piranesi lives. He fishes in the Lower Halls for sustenance, and he decorates his long hair with beautiful things that he finds—shells, coral, pebbles. He talks to the birds and to the statues. He names the years (The Year I discovered the Coral Halls; The Year of Weeping and Wailing; The Year I named the Constellations) and he writes in his journal. The record he is keeping is for The Sixteenth Person. Piranesi, in his scientific way, has catalogued “A list of all the people who have ever lived and what is known of them.” Based on the knowledge that he has, he knows that fifteen people have certainly existed. He is one. There are thirteen skeletons in the House, to which Piranesi tends and takes offerings. And then there is The Other.

The Other is a man with whom Piranesi meets for exactly one hour twice a week. In spite of the Other’s cruelty to him, Piranesi has an affection for this man, who is handsome and well-dressed and engrossed in a search for a Great and Secret Knowledge, which he is certain will grant him enormous power. Mysteriously, the Other is able to sometimes provide things to Piranesi such as a sleeping bag, or a ham and cheese sandwich, or a pair of shoes. Piranesi is not quite sure why the House gives such things to the Other and not to him, but he bears it philosophically.

And then, the things that once made sense to Piranesi start to fall apart. He discovers that there are gaps in his memory, and he learns that the Other is lying to him. The sixteenth person looms on the horizon, and Piranesi struggles to make sense of the things that are happening. Gentle and thoughtful by nature, Piranesi inclines towards trust, and now he must begin to doubt.

The book unwinds like a mystery, with Piranesi as the sleuth, and this is a part of its charm. But as he uncovers layer after layer, we follow him on a path not to resolution but to expansion—and even more mystery. His life is not what he thinks, and there is an unspoken grief accompanying each new reveal.

The undercurrent of longing and loneliness is drawn so very skilfully by Susanna Clarke that we can feel our hearts breaking for Piranesi even as he has no words or memories to express what he is experiencing. The House is both a sanctuary and a prison.

There is a deep uncanniness to this book that is unlike anything else I’ve read. And yet, there is a part of me that strongly wants to go the House, sit in the utter silence broken only by the tides, bind my hair in seaweed and memorize the statues. To write in a journal like Piranesi and put capital letters on all of the things that matter most. To mark my years by the tides and the birds.

This is a slim little book whose tides you will feel in your body, long after you’ve turned the last page.

***

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Carceri d’Invenzione: The Drawbridge, Detail, 1760. Etching on paper © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie / Volker-H. Schneider

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