NOTE: CONTAINS SPOILERS
Piranesi… an extraordinary journey deep into the labyrinth…
Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi offers us a scintillating glimpse into a world of strange magic, with its own rules and internal logic. From its outset it drips with mystery. What is this bewildering world which gives us no clues to its meaning? Is it a metaphor? Are we in some strange psychodrama? Is it simply the hallucination of a madman? And if not, what, exactly? The early sections of the book circumscribe what we know to the limited experience of the narrator, the strange hermit-like Piranesi who believes himself to be a child of the great sprawling and impossible mansion that is The House. And that enigma drives the reader on to find some sort of answer, following the central character’s methodical hunt for the truth about his world and himself.
The great enigma set up at the start of the book has two really strong resonances for me.
Firstly, it feels like the written counterpart to an immersive theatre production – something like the disorienting alternative world of The Drowned Man that sprawled through the massive Paddington Post Office sorting office in 2013 – a series of unexplained vistas and art installations with scenes unfolding that had their own internal logic from which explanation was withheld. As with The Drowned Man, in Clarke’s Piranesi, we strive toward a gestalt that will make the whole bewildering thing make sense.
The second resonance is far older. Symbolised by Clarke’s narrator when he is in the Hall of the Minotaurs, we too must follow a thread of logic and empirical observation to work out exactly what this enigma might signify. Clarke is calling back to the legend of Theseus on Minos, and we too must find our way out of the bewildering labyrinth as we explore it through the journals of Piranesi.
The eponymous narrator himself guides us methodically through his observations of The House, and as he does so, slowly the interactions he has, along with his own prior observations, begin to unfold what and where this place is. Along the way, we explore the history of human knowledge. From early burial rights and the prehistoric world view, through the Platonic cave whose inhabitants see images from the real world as shadows on a wall but never see the truth, via the Theseus story, Narnian dimension-hopping and Jungian myths of anima and animus, along with Colin Wilson and Outsider Theory, we experience an extraordinary, rich journey through a multitude of modes of thinking, all set against the background of the mysterious ruins of The House, which is clearly inspired by the evocative architectural art of 18th Century engraver Giovanni Battista Piranesi.
The book is beautiful. There are moments within it when the imagery is so strong it is almost eidetic. I gasped at the sheer baroqueness of the visuals I was invited to enjoy. Vast echoing halls in the house are lined with thousands of statues, each an archetype of some sort, each representing in some way discarded or forgotten knowledge from the whole sweeping history of humanity, as well as symbols of growing self-consciousness. The place, then, is made of – or by – magic. This provides much of the wonder of the book, against which the story unfolds.
Along the way, questions of religion, of magic and of personal identity are subtly, delicately threaded and explored, at each turn leaving one unsure where the story will go next.
And all the while, the compelling and essentially simple story, which is at heart the solving of a mystery, adds deeper levels to the book. This story of life in The House mirrors another modern phenomenon: the Escape Room, in which the player must work out how to leave. Another comparison is that of the classic video games Myst and Riven, in which the player must gather pages of a book to solve a series of puzzles and divine where the truth lies, while wandering through a mysterious world whose origins are hidden from the player.
All these analogues are in themselves addictive. And it is no surprise that with Clarke’s brilliantly lucid and balanced prose, with her meticulous and exquisite descriptions that amaze, amuse and bewilder, the book is proving an instant classic.
In some reviews, the writing has been described as experimental. When I read this, I prepared myself for broken sentences, rhyme, playing with form, fracturing of meaning and much more – but the description is misleading. The prose throughout is the friendly, thoughtful prose of a confiding and likeable writer of a journal. There is nothing experimental in the form, while the content is essentially that catch-all genre: weird fiction, one in which I’m very much at home.
I read it in just a few sittings, and I am by no means a fast reader. This is one of those books that is genuinely difficult to put down. When I did, I found myself lying awake wondering where the narrative might go next, and being genuinely concerned for the gentle narrator at its heart.
Be ready then, to explore a new world with this book. It is utterly delightful, deeply seductive, completely beguiling and will greet the reader with the enigmatic smile of the Sphinx.
Take a ball of wool and be ready to chalk the walls when you enter this magical realm.