Piranesi - although that is not his name - dwells in the House, a vast labyrinth of halls, vestibules and statues. The upper level of the House is filled with clouds and the lower with an ocean, with tides that occasionally flood the middle floors where Piranesi lives. The only other dweller of the House is the Other, a friendly but curt man who sometimes brings Piranesi supplies from unknown reaches of the structure. The Other warns Piranesi that a newcomer has entered the House, threatening destruction and chaos. Piranesi tries to avoid this newcomer, but his orderly trackings of the House's tides reveal that a great flood is coming, and he struggles on whether to warn the interloper or let them be swept away.
Piranesi is the long, long-awaited second novel by Susanna Clarke. In 2004 she released her first book, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which was one of those once-in-a generation books which was released to uproarious critical acclaim and immense commercial success (I had mixed feelings on it, with a brilliant opening half let down by a rambling second). A television adaptation was screened in 2015. However, Clarke's only other publication since then is a short story collection, The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories. Despite occasional hints at a Jonathan Strange sequel, nothing further materialised until Piranesi arrived in 2020. Clarke confirmed that ill health had made completing the Jonathan Strange sequel impossible, so she had chosen Piranesi as a smaller, more manageable project to complete instead.
Piranesi is something of a fable, with the protagonist an unreliable narrator not because of deception, but because his memory is faulty. His origins are unclear, and he knows what certain items are despite apparently never having set foot outside of the House (if that is even possible; the House seems to consist of the entirety of its world). Piranesi maintains a strict regime of updating his diary (and its gargantuan index), fishing so he won't starve and building up supplies of combustible for the winter. He also liaises with the Other on his various projects, and is a master of the House's geography and wildlife (birds nest on the top floor and various sea life can be found in the lower). The oddness of the situation is not apparent to Piranesi, who has no memory of things being any different. He is trusting beyond a fault and guileless.
Clarke lets the novel unfold like a mixture between a dream and a puzzle, slowly giving the reader more clues as to the nature of what is going on. Some may lament the lack of ambiguity in the conclusion of the novel - you get a pretty full picture of what's happened - but it fits Clarke's style from Jonathan Strange where exposition is made part of the literary effect, not shied away from.
Despite some similarities in how it imparts information, Piranesi is in some respects the antithesis of Jonathan Strange. It is short and pacy whilst the earlier novel was expansive and floundered. Piranesi has a very small cast of characters and a very narrow setting, whilst the earlier book had a huge cast, spanned most of Europe and explored numerous subplots. Clarke's style here is much tighter than in the earlier book, with not a word or phrase wasted. The similarities of Piranesi's isolation to the COVID lockdowns, although accidental (the novel was finished before the pandemic), also feels oddly timely.
Piranesi (*****) is a joyfully-written puzzle box of a novel, stronger than Clarke's earlier work and featuring a memorable world and fascinating characters.