Saturday, October 24, 2020

Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke

Bloomsbury Publishing, September 2020

Our narrator is a man whom, for convenience, we'll call Piranesi. He lives in the House, a strange and grand structure of vast size, with vestibules, halls, corridors, and not least statues, stretching apparently infinitely in all directions. Piranesi carefully maps the House and its features, and tracks the tides that can flood the House to dangerous depths. By understanding both the tides and the halls, he can keep himself safe from the floods. He lives on fish and seaweed, and finds the House to be a source of comfort, peace, and understanding. All that he learns about his world, he carefully records in his journals. He regards his work as a serious and scientific project to understand the world.

There's another person in the House, a man he calls the Other, whom he regards as a friend. They meet every Tuesday and Thursday, and the Other asks Piranesi to gather information that assists in his own rather different research. He says it's about regaining what he calls the "Great and Secret Knowledge" that he says was lost in the pursuit of "progress," of which he has a very dim view.

Piranesi believes that the Other is his friend. Evidence for this includes their regular meetings, and the gifts the Other has given him over the years--a new pair of shoes, fishing nets, new blank journals and pens, a ham sandwich... Gradually, the reader realizes two things: First, Piranesi is familiar with an awful lot of stuff he can't possibly know from the world he's living in, even though he believes the House is the whole world, the only world. Second, the Other has easy access  to the things of our world, things that don't exist in the world of the House. And he's not sharing these things with Piranesi, except to the extent that it serves the Other's interests. 

Something very strange is going on here. And new events start to make Prianesi aware that there's something strange going on, although at some points, he thinks the problem is that he's losing his mental grip. He discovers evidence of another person in the House, and the Other warns him of the possible arrival of another person, but when Piranesi tells him what he's seen, no, that's not the person the Other is warning him of. The one the Other is warning him of, he claims is a threat to Piranesi. He may drive Piranesi mad, or he may try to kill Piranesi. And really, he says, the best thing is to kill this person, without risking any conversation.

When events prompt Piranesi to look in the index he's made for his journals, he finds references he doesn't understand, and eventually, in his earliest journals, information he doesn't understand, including words that trigger images that are frightening and, he is sure, delusional.

Piranesi is a really likable character, intelligent, earnest, determined to do the right thing--and increasingly confused about what that might be. I really could not stop reading, and the conclusion is very satisfying.

Highly recommended.

I bought this book.

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