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Review: The long-awaited followup to ‘Jonathan Strange” is even more magically immersive

Bloomsbury novelist Susanna Clarke at her home in the Peak district. Her latest book is "Piranesi."
(Sarah Lee)

On the Shelf

Piranesi

By Susanna Clarke
Bloomsbury: 272 pages, $27

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In “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell,” Susanna Clarke’s 2004 lightning bolt of a debut, magic spurts out of stones and fields, slips into dreams and Regency-era ballrooms, rouses dead young ladies. In one pivotal moment, Strange, the apprentice magician to Norrell, arrives in a Belgian village on behalf of the British government, turning his magic against Napoleon’s indomitable army. He moves roads and sets brooks flowing in the wrong direction, eventually summoning a thundercloud “so full and heavy that its ragged skirts seemed to brush the tops of the trees.” The French cavalry struggles in the sucking mud, stymied by what they think is weather, though we know it is ancient magic. Enchantment is everywhere, and it crackles, in the tiniest drops of water and the most consequential routs in history, like Waterloo.

Clarke has explained that chronic fatigue syndrome kept her from embarking on another 800-plus page enterprise. But “Piranesi,” out this week after 16 years between novels, is a little imp of a book that packs a punch several times its (relatively) meager page count. I’d worried that, all these years later, Clarke might have grown timid, seeking a breather from all the grand historical world-building. Instead, she creates a dazzling world of infinite fascination inside the musings of one very simple man.

From the beginning, we know that magic will abound. “Piranesi” starts with a quote from C.S. Lewis’ Narnia prequel “The Magician’s Nephew”: “I am the great scholar, the magician, the adept, who is doing the experiment. Of course I need subjects to do it on.” That’s Andrew Ketterly speaking, the imperious and heartless uncle who sends two children off to “the wood between the worlds” that leads to Narnia. (Remember his name.) Clarke is dropping bread crumbs a curious reader can follow back to the novel’s ancestral inspirations: alternate worlds, the corruption of innocence, the preoccupations of the vainglorious.

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Piranesi, or rather the man who goes by Piranesi (“as far as I remember it is not my name”), lives inside the House, “an infinite series of classical buildings knitted together,” something like dozens and dozens of pillared Temples of Bacchus inside one of Yayoi Kusama’s mirrored rooms. In what he calls the Upper Halls, “Clouds move in slow procession and Statues appear suddenly out of the mists.” In the Drowned Halls below, “Dark Waters are carpeted with white water lilies.” Piranesi largely spends his days alone — fishing, or visiting skeletons in far-off halls, or writing in his journals.

"Piranesi," a new novel by Susanna Clarke.
(Bloomsbury Publishing)

We have no idea how Piranesi came to be here, or whether or when he arrived from elsewhere, and he does not know either. He guesses himself to be about 35, and exists quite happily in the present, never questioning how he knows of otherworldly things, like the exact pattern of Prince of Wales check or the smell of petrol. It’s easy to see why: his world is pleasant and uncrowded, like a permanent meditation retreat in the Louvre.

Jonathan Strange” evoked the silk-hung bedrooms and dusty streets of early 19th-century London, a brilliant, layered conjuring from the past. The world of “Piranesi,” meanwhile, is built entirely from scratch, at first as devoid of life as an Escher sketch but gradually filled in until it’s as rich as a second universe. The walls are crammed with statues — the Woman carrying a Beehive, the Elephant carrying a Castle, and Piranesi’s favorite, a Mr. Tumnus-like Faun that, he imagines, is warning him about something.

Weather occurs inside, days of wind and snow; outside exist “only the Celestial Objects: Sun, Moon, and Stars.” For Piranesi, it is more than a home, it’s a god and a universe. The House, he believes, gives him life, and so he expresses devotion; its Beauty, he writes, “is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.” It’s also a playground for the reader, a place to get lost, to find totems, to hunker and clamber as it unfolds into the distance.

There is one other occupant, The Other — the tall, imperious man who comes and goes on a quest for “a Great and Secret Knowledge hidden somewhere in the World.” As indifferent to the wonders of the House as Piranesi is captivated, he taps away at “a shiny rectangle” of indeterminate use and orders Piranesi around.

This is the kind of novel that gives critics angina as they decide what plot points expose too much. But I’ll say this: Another person suddenly shows up in the House, and Piranesi begins to reread his past journal entries for clues about his former self. Clarke flips a switch, setting off a fantastical puzzle-box mystery that we and Piranesi solve together. His sleuthing is textual analysis; he has to read what he’s written in the past and piece together a narrative out of thin air. Names like “Valentine Ketterly” and “Perugia,” which Piranesi considers “nonsense words,” crowd his older records. He’s an eager student of his own work, but also fearful of learning too much, of breaking the spell of his contentment.

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I promised you this novel was also about magic, and it is, on two levels. There is real magic, akin to Strange’s, if less thundering — but also the magic of transportive storytelling, which strikes Piranesi as well as us. His childlike wonder feels magical, too, in that it’s plausible. Here is a protagonist with no guile, no greed, no envy, no cruelty, and yet still intriguing. Piranesi is a portrait of us as young readers, swept into a story and happy to stay there. “Keep it up!” the novel seems to murmur in our ears, “read, read, read!”

One thing we discover about the magic in the House is that to use it, “one must return to the last place in which one had stood before the iron hand of modern rationality gripped one’s mind.” It’s like water that “for decades, centuries, millennia … makes a crack in the rock under the earth; then it wears the hole into a cave entrance — a kind of door in fact … [T]here must be a passage, a door between us and wherever magic had gone.” That passage is something we can crawl into, Clarke seems to say, a place we can find both rest and excitement. The Halls are a beautiful trap, and Piranesi’s journal, the text of “Piranesi,” is a reminder that the book itself is a constructed place. The novel is what lies behind that door.

Early on, Piranesi asserts that there must be a “16th person” in the House, someone beyond himself and The Other and the 13 skeletons to whom he brings offerings. Maybe it’s his reader. “And You. Who are You?,” he wonders, “Who is it that I am writing for? Are You a traveller who has cheated Tides and crossed Broken Floors and Derelict Stairs to reach these Halls? Or are You perhaps someone who inhabits my own Halls long after I am dead?” In Clarke’s world, we are more than an observer. If we’re reading Piranesi’s words, then we must be subject to the magic as well.

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Kelly’s work has been published in New York Magazine, Vogue, the New York Times Book Review and elsewhere.


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