Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is one of my favorite books, and I’ve been longing for another novel from Clarke ever since I first read that masterpiece. (I haven’t read her story collection, fearing that short stories won’t have the same immersive quality.) Piranesi is very different from her earlier novel, but it has that same quality of pulling readers into a whole other world, where the rules are different and strange. In this case, the world is a watery castle, occupied by a man called Piranesi (although that is not his name) and another man he calls The Other. Piranesi spends his days cataloging what’s in each room of the vast sprawling world and meeting periodically with The Other.
The experience of reading Piranesi was so rich for me. Clarke creates a whole word, and our guide is an appealingly deliberate and careful sort of person that I both related to and cared about. He seems contented in his odd life, moving from room to room, keeping numbered journals, and always attentive to the tides that flood various rooms. But, as a reader watching from the outside, I could see reasons to be wary (and not just because it’s a strange world).
This rest of this post is potentially spoilery, but I will avoid specifics as best I can.
The book got me thinking about the worlds we create for ourselves, through the media we choose to consume, the people we choose to believe, and the ideas we choose to pursue. This is, of course, pertinent to our current moment, with so many people diving head-first into conspiracy theories in which Democrats and media elites are harvesting children’s blood to consume their life force.
Once on the inside of that world, it’s next to impossible for people to see a different reality. Things that seem bizarre to anyone else (such as that the entire media apparatus is covering up child trafficking with nary a leak) seem perfectly plausible. For Piranesi, it makes sense that the whole world is just two people and that one of those people somehow is able to access food and supplies that Piranesi cannot. Like Piranesi, believers in conspiracy theories obsessively catalog every clue about the world as they understand it and they don’t really take a step back to see that the story doesn’t make sense.
In Piranesi, a third person eventually arrives, someone The Other perceives as a threat. What is that third person going to reveal? Who will Piranesi listen to? And all of this is wrapped up in the fact that Piranesi is happy in his little world. He has no desire to see anything different. And, as readers, we can’t help but wonder what he would find if his world gets bigger. Is he safer in his strange house, moving along with the tides, just as we’re safer at home in a pandemic?
I don’t necessarily think Clarke was intentionally writing a parable for these times, but maybe! It certainly functioned that way for me. Plus, it’s just a really good story. It feels at times like a horror story built on unease, which is my favorite kind of horror story — where something isn’t quite right but you can’t put your finger on it. And the world is different enough from our own that we cannot be sure what’s going on until the book reveals its secrets.
I loved it. It was worth the wait.