I missed the hullabaloo surrounding Susanna Clarke’s debut, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which didn’t seem like my kind of novel. Then again, neither did Piranesi (2020), but it came highly recommended from multiple sources, so I gave it a go. This short, lyrical science fantasy is a real gem, a master class in speculative mystery plotting, and I’m deeply grateful it didn’t slip through my radar.
Piranesi takes place in an intriguing, surreal environment: a sprawling, three-level museum, flooded on its lower floors and extending endlessly in every direction. Our protagonist is Piranesi, a scientifically minded student of the museum who meticulously documents its every detail: the rise and fall of its floodwater tides, the location of every hall, the details of every statue. Piranesi is one of the only living people in the world, but he does share his observations and findings with another, similarly scholarly person, known simply as the Other. Piranesi’s simple, bright-eyed observations of the museum’s qualities are indicative of his curious nature, and he’s not at all dissatisfied by his industrious, spartan existence, but when at long last a third living person turns up in the halls, it sets him down a path of startling discovery about both himself and the world he inhabits.
It takes a chapter or two for Piranesi’s infectious readability to develop, but once it does, the journey is swift and assured. Clarke first builds a mysterious, otherworldly setting, through Piranesi’s narration establishing the many questions of its speculative premise. Then, gradually and cleverly, the questions are answered, Piranesi’s investigations revealing new evidence entirely comprehensible to the reader, even as Piranesi himself does not understand. In this way, the information accumulates at a steady, brisk pace and doesn’t overstay its welcome. Clarke brilliantly manages to solve the mystery of the situation without demystifying the magic of her world, bringing Piranesi to a breathtaking emotional closure. A truly stunning book.