Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Wednesday, June 24, 2020: Maximum Shelf: Piranesi

Bloomsbury Publishing: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Bloomsbury Publishing: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Bloomsbury Publishing: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Bloomsbury Publishing: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke


by Susanna Clarke

British author Susanna Clarke won a World Fantasy Award and legions of fans with her debut novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a classic in its own time. Now, in her first novel in almost 16 years, Clarke introduces readers to a dreamlike new world and the charming, curious soul who lives in it and loves it. A bold blend of mystery-thriller and speculative fiction, this literary fantasia inspired by the etchings of 18th-century Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi explores the resilience of the human spirit and challenges the concept of what it means to be lost.

In a vast, austere labyrinth of halls and stairs "like an infinite series of classical buildings knitted together" and filled with ocean tides, a lone occupant devotes his life to naming its statues, cataloging its nooks and crannies, and eking out a spartan existence from the fish and seaweed he harvests from its waves. "I have climbed up to the Upper Halls where Clouds move in slow procession and Statues appear suddenly out of the Mists. I have explored the Drowned Halls where the Dark Waters are carpeted with white water lilies," he records in his meticulously indexed journals. He believes that "since the World began it is certain that there have existed fifteen people," but 13 are skeletons he has found and watches over as a reverent caretaker. Currently he can only confirm that the world, which he calls the House, has two occupants: himself and an older man he calls the Other. This man is his colleague, he explains, and they are searching together for "a Great and Secret Knowledge" hidden somewhere in the House. The Other calls the narrator Piranesi, "which is strange because as far as I remember it is not my name," and visits every Tuesday and Friday for one hour. Piranesi enjoys spending time with his friend but also worries about the Other's welfare. The Other often turns up with supplies like notebooks, shoes and "shining devices," even though Piranesi has never found any similar objects in the House. Believing the House provides for its occupants, he assumes it provides these extra resources to make up for gaps in the Other's survival skills and appreciates the few objects the Other shares with him.  

Recently, the Other has begun to behave oddly, asking if Piranesi remembers "Batter-Sea," when no one can remember a made-up place. Their peculiar talks culminate in the astounding revelation that he and Piranesi are not the only living human beings in existence. When Piranesi greets the announcement with joy and dubs the newly discovered person "16," the Other cautions, "16 is my enemy. And so, by extension, yours too." He instructs Piranesi to avoid 16 at all costs or risk madness. Piranesi feels torn--he trusts the Other, but he longs to hear the voice of another person. Soon he finds his harsh but fulfilling existence challenged by secret messages, unfolding mysteries and odd discrepancies in his own writings. Why, he wonders, would he have dated his oldest journals with the random numbers 2011 and 2012? As the nature of the House and his presence there slowly come to light, the man called Piranesi must decide whom to trust if he wants to survive long enough to learn the whole truth.

Born into the shadow of fantasy titan Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Clarke's meditative mystery will face high expectations and, inevitably, the question of how it compares to its famous predecessor. Despite their common provenance, comparison is difficult, as they are distinct, and distinctly brilliant. Rather than sprawling baroque grandeur, this story and its setting share the essence of a real labyrinth, subtle yet unadorned, offering a path of contemplation and change. Clarke's narrator lends credence to Hamlet's famous assertion, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." The reader will realize within the first few pages that something is terribly off about Piranesi's circumstances, but in his innocence, he sees his spartan prison as an amalgamation of noble wilderness, holy temple and compassionate deity. His mantra "the Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite" seems dangerously naive at first, but between his facility at creating a life from its harsh conditions and sonorous descriptions of its bleak beauty, a portrait slowly forms of a person utterly whole and at home in his environment. The quintessential wise fool, he serves as a reminder that human needs are deeper and simpler than modern life suggests. 

Clarke's wry, masterful use of dramatic irony fuels both humor and suspense as the story builds to its climax with disciplined pacing. Though brief in length, it holds its secrets tightly until the right moments and leaves one with the sense of having glimpsed a boundless cosmos through a keyhole. Piranesi marks a sophisticated and triumphant return for one of the finest novelists of this era. --Jaclyn Fulwood

Bloomsbury Publishing, $27, hardcover, 272p., 9781635575637, September 15, 2020

Bloomsbury Publishing: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

The Joining of Three Tides

Susanna Clarke
(photo: Sarah Lee)

What follows is an excerpt from Susanna Clarke's novel Piranesi, to be published by Bloomsbury on September 15, 2020.

First came the Tide from the Far Eastern Halls. This Tide ascended the easternmost Staircase without violence. It had no colour to speak of and its Waters were no more than ankle deep. It spread a grey mirror across the Pavement, the surface of which was marbled with streaks of milky Foam.

Next came the Tide from the Western Halls. This Tide thundered up the westernmost Staircase and hit the Eastern Wall with a great Clap, making all the Statues tremble. Its Foam was the white of old fishbones, and its churning depths were pewter. Within seconds its Waters were as high as the Waists of the First Tier of Statues.

Last came the Tide from the Northern Halls. It hurled itself up the middle Staircase, filling the Vestibule with an explosion of glittering, ice-white Foam. I was drenched and blinded. When I could see again Waters were cascading down the Statues. It was then that I realised I had made a mistake in calculating the volumes of the Second and Third Tides. A towering Peak of Water swept up to where I crouched. A great Hand of Water reached out to pluck me from the Wall. I flung my arms around the Legs of the Woman carrying a Beehive and prayed to the House to protect me. The Waters covered me and for a moment I was surrounded by the strange silence that comes when the Sea sweeps over you and drowns its own sounds. I thought that I was going to die; or else that I would be swept away to Unknown Halls, far from the rush and thrum of Familiar Tides. I clung on.

Then, just as suddenly as it began, it was over. The Joined Tides swept on into surrounding Halls. I heard the thunder and crack as the Tides struck the Walls. The Waters in the Ninth Vestibule sank rapidly down until they barely covered the Plinths of the First Tier of Statues.

I realised that I was holding on to something. I opened my hand and found a marble Finger from some Faraway Statue that the Tides had placed there.

The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.


I was often hungry.

Fear and hunger forced me to explore the House and I discovered that fish were plentiful in the Drowned Halls. Their Waters were still and I was not so afraid. The difficulty here was that the Drowned Halls were surrounded by Dereliction on all sides. To reach them it was necessary to go up to the Upper Halls and then descend by means of the Wreckage through the great Rents and Gashes in the Floor.

Once, when I had not eaten for two days, I determined to go to the Drowned Halls to find some food. I ascended to the Upper Halls. This in itself was not easy for someone in my enfeebled condition. The Staircases, though they vary in size, are mostly built on the same noble scale as the rest of the House and each Step is almost twice the height that is comfortable for me. (It is as though God had originally built the House intending to people it with Giants before inexplicably changing His Mind....

I had my Journal with me. Consulting it, I discovered that I had been in this Vicinity once before and had in fact made detailed notes of the Hall beyond this one; the Hall above the Twentieth Eastern Hall. I had described the character and condition of the Statues and had even made a sketch of one of them. But of this Hall--the Hall on whose Threshold I now stood, the Hall that was full of Clouds--of this Hall I had recorded nothing whatsoever.

Today I would consider it madness to journey through a Hall I cannot see properly and of which I have no record, but today I do not allow Myself to get as hungry as I was then.

Adjoining Halls usually share some characteristics. The Hall immediately to my rear was approximately 200 metres in length and 120 metres wide and so the chances were good that the Hall before me was the same. It did not seem an impossible distance; I was more concerned about the Statues. From what I could see, these depicted human or demi-human figures, all two or three times my own stature and all in the throes of violent action: men fighting, women and men being carried off by centaurs or satyrs, octopuses tearing people apart. In most Regions of the House the expressions of the Statues are joyful or tranquil or possessed of a distant calm; but here the Faces were distorted in screams of rage or anguish.

I resolved to go carefully. To bash oneself on an outstretched marble limb is painful.

I entered the Cloud and slowly made my way along the Northern Side of the Hall.... I took a step away from the Wall to circumvent [a Statue] and my foot met with...


© Susanna Clarke, 2020 Bloomsbury Publishing,
50 Bedford Square, London, WCIB 3DP, UK

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