One of the myriad memorable elements in Susanna Clarke’s astonishing and bestselling first novel was her evocation of a parallel reality, a “fairyland”, that was both a place of almost unimaginable possibilities and a climate in which human beings can’t safely live. Her second novel is as different as could be in its style and setting to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – published 16 years ago – but it continues, brilliantly, to explore the same territory where exhilaration and mortal danger flow into each other.
Clarke gives the initially unnamed narrator of this story a remarkable voice, of washed simplicity, blending compassion, obsessive observation and childlike directness. He leads us into “the House”, the labyrinthine complex of Halls, Stairs, Vestibules that constitutes the World (the capital letters are one of the ways in which the narrator’s intensified perception is conveyed). Throughout this landscape there are Statues, some depicting what we would recognise as mythical beings (fauns, centaurs, giants), some simply showing humans and animals in various significant poses or configurations – “the Woman carrying a Beehive… the Young Boy playing the Cymbals, the Elephant carrying a Castle, the Two Kings playing Chess”. Occasionally, the Tides sweep dangerously through some of the Halls and Courtyards and drown them for a time. The only other inhabitants of the World are birds and fish – and “the Other”, the human presence who meets the narrator twice a week, and who has christened him Piranesi, after the Italian artist whose bleak engravings depict desolate expanses of ruined classical buildings and huge underground vaults and prisons.
The Other is, from the first, a disturbing figure. We learn early on that he believes the World conceals the secret of enormous powers that could enable acts such as “vanquishing Death and becoming immortal… moving objects using only our thoughts… snuffing out and reigniting the Sun and Stars… dominating lesser intellects and bending them to our will”. He relies on Piranesi’s guilelessness, his readiness to explore every corner of the World, and his capacity to remember its every detail, every byway of its geography and the rhythm of its Tides. But we gradually see that the Other is trying to manipulate Piranesi’s mind and to keep him in complete dependence; and Piranesi, having begun in absolute trust, has to confront the possibility that he is being deliberately deceived.
The path to this realisation is laid out with great subtlety. Piranesi begins to question the search for Knowledge: the House, he says, is telling him to abandon the quest (“supposing for a moment that a lesser mind existed, why would I want to control it?”). The fact that the Other rejects any suggestion of dropping the search increases Piranesi’s unease, as does the Other’s fierce denial that it could be possible to meet other humans in the World – although the evidence is mounting that there is indeed another presence in the background. And then there are the dead bodies that Piranesi has discovered and which he attends to with loving care.
It becomes clearer both to us and to our narrator that the House and its World are not all that exists. But it is consistently understood by Piranesi as benign: in a phrase that recurs several times, “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.” It becomes dangerous when seen with eyes that refuse to encounter it as Piranesi does, with undistracted, unselfconscious attention and gratitude.
The pace of Clarke’s storytelling is mesmerising. The slow accumulation of bizarre detail, related in Piranesi’s quiet, even voice, builds steadily so as to increase the reader’s disquiet: this is a World that makes orderly sense to Piranesi and is utterly bewildering to the reader, for whom stray clues, hints and unfinished business constantly press up against the calm of the narrative surface. The cliché that this book is hard to put down is for once true; I can think of few recent books that keep the reader so passionately hungry to know what happens next and to understand the hints and guesses that appear in greater and greater profusion. And – quite properly – we are left at the end with plenty of unresolved questions: the conclusion is profoundly satisfying without being neat.
To say much more would be to risk giving away the intricacies of the plot; but one of the epigraphs, from CS Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, gives a heavy hint (and the statue of a Faun in the Halls provides another nudge in the direction of Lewis’s Narnia). Enough to say that the fable of a conscienceless sorcerer tricking or persuading others to take risks to increase his own power is clearly in the background of Clarke’s story. But the journeys and discoveries of Piranesi raise questions even more searching than what may be legitimate in acquiring knowledge and power. Piranesi is baffled by the Other’s aims: why should we want to control “lesser” subjects? To engage with the disorienting environment of the House and its World with the goal of dominance and exploitation is to encounter the House as ultimately dangerous, even deadly. Piranesi’s apprehension of the World – a receptiveness that is not quite childlike or naive – allows the House to speak, to teach, to be known as infinitely kind.
As the story unfolds, we see a little of what this means: the doorways between worlds may sometimes yield to the force of magical ritual, but more secure access is to be gained by rediscovering a lost vulnerability and openness. So the secret knowledge of the labyrinthine other world cannot be owned and used; it can only be sensed, listened to, felt in the almost fanatically attentive acts of care and compassion undertaken by a person like Piranesi.
What, then, is the relation between the World and our own universe? We’re left to work this out for ourselves; but the clues are there. At one point, the Other tells Piranesi that the World is in some way dependent on ours. Later, it is suggested that the Statues are an enhanced version of what is there in our world. There is a poignant moment when a sad old man in the streets of our world is recognised as the prototype for an image of a king in splendour in one of the halls of the House.
Clarke is not writing an allegory, but the House and its World allow us to see what is unchanging and solid within the phenomena of our world. Readers of Jonathan Strange
& Mr Norrell may recall passages of that book where something similar is evoked, as when one character senses himself looking into dark rooms, each containing “not a person exactly – a Being, an Ancient Spirit. One contained a Fire; another a Stone… yet another a Small Creature with Dark and Fiery Thoughts”. For some, the World of the House is alien and frightening because what is seen and felt there is so wholly at odds with the usual register of self-reference, ownership, use. The World of true imagining is not safe for most human sensibilities.
This is a novel of exceptional beauty, something which surpasses even the lovely, gratifyingly ironic prose familiar from Clarke’s first book. There is at the heart of her writing a rare capacity for the immediate: the stripped, wide-eyed descriptive simplicity of someone who, like her Piranesi, has gone through some sort of barrier and brought back news. A person who has lived in the House and learned its strange kindness.
Bloomsbury, 272pp, £14.99
This article appears in the 30 Sep 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the Union