Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

After her debut, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clark's second novel was a long time coming - and not because it's a rambling 800-pager like its predecessor.

Published 16 years later, Piranesi is very different in style. While Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was verbose and digressive, written in the style of an early 19th century novelist, Piranesi is written with clarity and economy.

The narrator is a young man, a scientist known for most of the story as Piranesi - although he's fairly certain that's not his name. He exists in what seems to be a vast, perhaps even infinite, building full of mysterious statues, spending his days carefully exploring and mapping its endless halls and corridors, noting his scientific observations about it. His understanding of the maze-like House is that it is the entire world, and it seems to have its own sea which regularly washes over the floors, bringing with it seaweed, fish and mussels, and floods certain halls at high tide. There are also birds, to which Piranesi talks politely - including, at one point, a pair of nesting albatrosses. You only have to observe birds carefully enough, he says, to learn to understand what they're saying, and it's usually something along the lines of 'Is this food?'

We soon realise that Piranesi is living in almost complete solitude. His only human contact is with The Other, a smartly-dressed older man with whom he converses twice a week or so and describes as a colleague. The |Other is assumed to live elsewhere in the House, and is a fellow scientist whom Piranesi sees as a friend and collaborator, but from the outset we realise The Other has a different perspective, and there are clear undertones of exploitation to which Piranesi is oblivious. It's discomfiting to read about their interactions: Piranesi, gentle and naive, is clearly vulnerable to manipulation, and you'd need a harder heart than mine not to feel protective of him.

Also discomfiting is the presence in the House of 13 sets of human remains, which Piranesi has named rather as if they're preserved Bronze Age corpses in a museum, and for which he cares for in their resting places with diligence and respect. Clearly there have been other people in the House at some point, but who were they? What's happened to them? Why is nobody else left? There might, Piranesi believes, be more people living in the House somewhere, but like an astronomer searching for evidence of life on other planets, he's yet to discover them. 

Piranesi and the Other are supposedly engaged in a quest for knowledge, although they seem to be looking for different things. The Other is looking for knowledge that brings power, while Piranesi is more interested in finding out more about the House, which he believes in almost as if it were a benign deity as well as the world in which he lives, something that provides him with the things he needs. And in some ways, the experience of reading this book mirrors that pursuit of discovery - as readers, we're even more in the dark that Piranesi is, and I was itching to find out more about the House and Piranesi himself from the very first page.

Clarke is very clever here in that she deliberately throws a few curveballs at us which stop us from simply accepting that Piranesi is set in a fantasy world. Early on, Piranesi mentions a biscuit tin. Later he receives a pair of trainers. He casually refers to a dropped crisp packet, and to the plastic bowls he uses to collect fresh water. Where are these things coming from? And perhaps more to the point, how does Piranesi, in a world where none of these things exist, know unquestioningly what they are?

There are some huge themes in this relatively small book, and it's a remarkable feat of world-building and imagination. It works as a fantasy novel in its own right, but it also raises questions about how we perceive reality, how we're shaped by our environments and how we make sense of them, creating our own meanings for the things we see around us. There are even elements to it which almost feel like a psychological thriller, with Piranesi struggling to make sense of his own past as he reads through old journals he has no memory of writing in, and there are moments of surprisingly tense drama and looming threat as the story develops.

Shining through all of this is Piranesi himself. I can't think when I last encountered a fictional character so innocently likeable. Piranesi expresses himself with sometimes comical simplicity, and yet it's also obvious that he's an intelligent and educated man. He's gentle, compassionate and thoughtful, quietly optimistic and incredibly resourceful. He's adjusted remarkably well to his almost complete solitude - he can't even conceive of a world where there are more than a couple of dozen people - and yet he is naturally inclined to be welcoming and kind to others. His lack of social interaction means he struggles to read human motives that might be obvious to the reader, but he also has a scientist's gift for deciphering clues and solving puzzles.

Piranesi is a novel that will stay with me for a long time - I read it weeks ago, and I still can't stop thinking about it and mulling over the questions it made me ask of myself. It's beautifully written - I could practically hear the waves lapping around the strange statues that fill Piranesi's seemingly abandoned world - and there's a gentle melancholy about it, but somehow I still found it oddly life-affirming. It was one of the first books I read in 2022, and I already know it's going to be among the best.