Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Susanna Clarke's 'Piranesi'

I just finished reading Clarke's new fantasy novel, and I loved it as the perfect follow up to her first book (after sixteen years - imagine that). Unlike Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Piranesi is a shorter and more intimate story since we're kept inside Piranesi's head the whole time, and the book doesn't follow as rigid a structure as Clarke's phenomenal debut work. 

The plot isn't exactly linear, and there are a good number of journal entries that detail past events while the present story itself inches forward. Gradually the threads work themselves together, and a more coherent picture begins to form.

I say "inches" not in a bad way. As some of you already know, I'm one for slow-burn fiction even while I still enjoy fast-paced stories, particularly in films. Majority of the book is spent in a dreamscape of sorts, filled with endless halls and hundreds of statues, and the feeling I got when I read it was of a hazy detachment from the plot. 

I love Piranesi's ridiculously colorful and haunting world. I love how solitude and loneliness blur the lines constantly till the final third of the book, where a feeling of melancholy settles over the whole thing - at least for me, anyway, given the final parts of the novel and how Piranesi's life goes on after the events that first brought him to the House. The tone of the novel at the conclusion mirrors the tone of the ending of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and it's the sort of ending that ticks all of my boxes. 

For every gain comes an awful loss. Innocence to experience - a favorite and ongoing theme that you've probably noticed in just about every book I write and publish. And that's what I get from Clarke's two novels. There's also the theme of the proud man humbled (Piranesi to a point* but more so Strange and Norrell) and the humble man or woman emerging triumphant (Raphael as well as Stephen Black).

Time is malleable in Piranesi, and that's in more ways than one. In addition to the pretty consistent switch between the present (Piranesi's naive, child-like accounts of his day spent in his beloved House - yep, with a capital "H") and the past (the journal entries), there's also the disparity between the way the calendar is marked, Piranesi's linguistic quirks, and the actual time period when the events happen. 

I thought at first that the story takes place in an odd historical vacuum, but it doesn't. It takes place in the 2010s, and for me, that makes a really nice switch from Clarke's Regency pastiche without "breaking form", in a way, since Clarke absolutely revels in folklore motifs from start to finish. So many elements in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell find their way into Piranesi, which makes the novel almost a loose sequel to the first book, the focus being on a contemporary world as a result of magical events from the past. 

Of course, with the present being what it is, magic is suppressed but still practiced in some subversive form or another by those who work almost like gatekeepers.

So yes - it's a great book and a fantastic read, though getting to Point B might be a bit of a slog if you expect a lot of forward movement to happen right from the start. I got used to the rhythm of Clarke's writing style as well as the nearly idle but steady pace of her plots when I first dove into Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, so I really have nothing bad to say about her follow up novel in that regard. 

All in all, I love it. Piranesi's world is beautiful, it's surreal, it's terrifying, and it's haunting, and the fact that Piranesi himself is both charming and - to our less open minds, I suppose - tragic makes my enjoyment of the novel even more visceral.

* pre-House Piranesi, that is, isn't exactly humble (those of you who've read the book will probably get my meaning) but certainly nowhere near Strange and Norrell who act like utter dickheads till they couldn't anymore

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