Written by: Susanna Clarke
Reviewed by: Rob Leicht
In 2004 British author Susanna Clarke amazed the world with her debut fantasy novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. The international bestseller about two rival magicians and the return of English magic was shockingly original. Now, sixteen years later, a new novel appears like magic out of thin air. Piranesi is vastly different from Clarke’s first book but incorporates many of the same themes, and it is no less remarkable of a work of art.
Like Jonathan Strange, Piranesi is a story that deals with the boundaries between magic and science, logic and the illogical, and the pure and impure. Written in an epistolary style through the title character’s journal entries, it is a whirlwind of a book. Every revelation about the protagonist or the world he inhabits is also a revelation for Piranesi himself, as he remembers neither his name nor anything prior to five years ago. Piranesi’s world is a labyrinthian “house”, as beautiful as it is haunting. The chambers and hallways are infinite in number, and every wall is lined with classical statues from floor to ceiling. An ocean impossibly exists on the lower level of the house, while the top floor is a realm of clouds and fog. And so Piranesi lives on the middle level with the only other apparent inhabitants of the house – birds. The pace is kept lightning fast. As the duel mysteries of Piranesi and the house are unraveled, the reader is left with urges to simultaneously read on for the next revelation while wanting to linger over every gorgeously written sentence and enjoy Piranesi’s innocence a little longer.
I’m hesitant to say any more than I already have. The incredible and captivating strangeness of Piranesi is one that needs to be experienced, not read about. Unlike the magic of spells, as in Jonathan Strange, the magic of Piranesi is one that is ingrained in the nature of reality itself. And the reality is that Susanna Clarke has written a transcendent masterpiece. If her debut established Clarke as one of the generation’s top fantasy writers, this novel firmly plants her among the greatest living writers in any genre. Period.