Piranesi, Susanna Clarke

An absorbing puzzle, Piranesi appears for a time to be a fantasy novel, its protagonist trapped within an alternate reality where the rules of nature and society are totally strange to the reader, though that central character, referred to as Piranesi, has completely accepted them.   Later, it reveals itself as a murder mystery worthy of a twenty-first-century Agatha Christie, the requisite cast of oddball characters interacting partly inside the grandest crumbling mansion one could imagine, and partly in an outside world quite like our own modern England.  By the end, it morphs into a psychological drama, dilemmas of perception and memory, fanaticism, indoctrination and obsession taking center stage as Clarke provides an explanation for what at the outset seemed inexplicable. 

There is artifice here, befitting a novel whose setting seems taken directly from works of art.  Without interviewing the author herself it is impossible to know whether her creation was inspired by the real Piranesi’s grand visions of crumbed antiquity, or whether her vision came by itself and was only later given the referent to add a layer of credibility.  Either way, for those who are familiar with Piranesi’s works, the link adds tremendous vividness to the novel’s setting.  For those not familiar with the drawings, it might spark a desire to look them up (assuming, of course, that such a reader even realizes there was a famous person named Piranesi).

Writing these notes, I pulled up some images of the artworks, and was reminded that their subjects are referred to as ‘imaginary prisons.’ Not sure whether that was the artist’s choice or just something art historians came up with, but the appellation only strengthens the connection between etchings and novel, as Piranesi the character has, in fact, been imprisoned by another character for his own nefarious purposes.

One small curiosity for writer/readers and bibliophiles – there are 245 numbered pages in the hardbacked I bought (stickered as a ‘Barnes & Noble EXCLUSIVE EDITION’ ), but then the final fifteen or so pages are totally unnumbered.  Is this an unconscionable oversight by the production team? An attempt to obscure the brevity of a volume which runs under 300 pp. yet sells for full hardback price?  Or is it an authorial device, commenting on how those final pages relate to what has come before (the unpaginated chapter contains supposed ‘background’ information to what has come before, transcripts which surely could have been formatted differently in their imagined ‘original’ form, but are just as certainly now part of the text of the actual book we are reading)? Or is it just a subtle crimson herring, one more mystery dropped at the reader’s doorstep to make them wonder what they may have missed in the larger puzzle they only think they have solved? Like the title’s origin story, one may never know.

As with her debut novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, one comes away with great appreciation for Clarke’s ability to create and entangle, to baffle and entice.  Where the first posited ‘real’ magic having once existed in the ‘real ‘world, this one posits a ‘real’ and accessible alternative world existing side-by-side with our own ‘reality.’  Both offer engrossing escape and clear insights into human behavior, including the ways in which we deceive, manipulate and take advantage of one another for our own ends.  Trips worth taking, these are, even if neither of their endings is nearly as satisfying as their beginnings.

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