Released in the second half of 2020 and shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, Susanna Clarke, author of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (2004), explores the untrodden depth of humanity in the timely Piranesi. Sharon Hsieh recommends.
there are multiple plot twists with tactful stylistic variation in narration
The initial setting and narrative of Piranesi cleverly misdirects the reader to assume it will have more science-fiction, fantasy characteristics or an alternative historical timeline like the author’s debut novel. Without giving too much away, it can be said that there are multiple plot twists with tactful stylistic variation in narration.
The eponymous protagonist, Piranesi, invites the reader into his private, reclusive world with unexpected optimism and innocent curiosity. His naivety almost provokes presumptions of intellectual inferiority from the reader. Without reader’s sense of superiority provided by their omnipresent perspective, the first impression of Piranesi’s profound multifaced solitude and intelligence would inevitably go amiss.
Early in the story the reader is introduced to Piranesi’s peculiar calendar, which seems like it might allude to a more fantastical story, yet we will soon realise that it’s a singular system invented by Piranesi and for his reference only. The novel takes place in the strange location called the House, which is made up of a series of halls. Piranesi only has his thoughts, statues, carcasses, inorganic substances and occasionally another researcher-like figure to keep him company.
Piranesi keeps scrupulous documentation of his daily activities with his own calendar and record-keeping system. Through his journal, we see that he holds an almost pious connection to all the objects around him – dead or alive. He explores the halls with admirable curiosity, not unlike a pioneer on virgin land with rigorous scientific integrity.
this opens up a destabilised, fluid yet all-inclusive narrative style
It’s with this scrupulousness that he discovers an inconsistency in his journals and the emptiness of the identity he was told to believe by the elusive researcher. Just when the reader expects the discovery to cause Piranesi to reject the identity he’s been constructing, our empathetic exceptional hero opts for embracing multiple different identities. This opens up a destabilised, fluid yet all-inclusive narrative style to encompass Piranesi’s identities in the past, present and future.
Piranesi displays a rarely seen sincerity to life, despite the adversity of contemporary literature. The simplistic setting doesn’t prevent it expressing an earnest need to cherish the mundane, or the craving to explore meanings and possibilities beyond what’s shown to us. It provides a roadmap for those who feel lost in previously unimaginable loneliness to search for the possibility to converse with our multiple personalities with empathy and unconditional acceptance.
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