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A house like no other

Varsha Venugopal | Updated on October 23, 2020 Published on October 23, 2020

Magical touch: Piranesi is a curious fantasy-mystery told through the eyes of its eponymous hero   -  ISTOCK.COM

Susanna Clarke’s new book may not be like her debut fantasy novel, but the spell is as enchanting as ever

* JonathanStrange & Mr Norrell polarised readers when it burst onto the fantasy scene in 2004 — some found it tiresomely long and contrived, while others desperately hoped for more. Now, 16 years later, British author Susanna Clarke has published her second fantasy novel, Piranesi. It is nothing like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

There are some books that one can’t help but return to every now and then. They’re pocket universes of comfort when one needs a break from the real world. Susanna Clarke’s debut fantasy, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, is one of those books for me.

I had stumbled on it quite by accident. I had ducked into a bookstore to hide from someone. The book caught my eye and I ended up buying it. By the time I finished reading the mammoth work — just a little short of 800 pages — I had been drawn into its world and couldn’t wait to read more of Clarke’s works.

Her story transported me to Regency-era England and otherworldly lands bursting at the seams with wild, wonderful magic. I met a variety of whimsical characters — some sensible or comical, others chillingly predatory or insane. Packed with divergent footnotes, the book nested elaborate stories within stories, like colourful babushka dolls.

JonathanStrange & Mr Norrell polarised readers when it burst onto the fantasy scene in 2004 — some found it tiresomely long and contrived, while others desperately hoped for more. Now, 16 years later, British author Clarke has published her second fantasy novel, Piranesi. It is nothing like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. For one, Piranesi is a short book of just under 250 pages. For another, it’s set in contemporary times. The narrative voice is plainer, quite different from that of her previous novel, which was reminiscent of Jane Austen’s writing style. But Clarke’s spell is as enchanting as ever. Piranesi is a curious fantasy-mystery told through the eyes of its eponymous hero, who lives by himself in a house of unimaginably vast proportions, arguably an ecosystem in its own right.

Piranesi / Susanna Clarke / Fiction / Bloomsbury / ₹699

 

Innumerable wings stretch in all directions, full of exquisitely carved statues; the ground floor is claimed by living seas housing fish and colourful coral while the sky blankets the top floor, crackling with sunshine, rain and snow as the seasons pass.

“About the middle of the First Month a Wind came up from the South,” Piranesi says. “It blew for days without ceasing and though I tried hard not to complain about it, I found it something of a trial... It howled in the Vestibules, catching up handfuls of loose snow and making them into little ghosts. Not everything about the Wind was bad. Sometimes it blew through the little voids and crevices of the Statues and caused them to sing and whistle in surprising ways; I had never known the Statues to have voices before and it made me laugh for sheer delight.”

Piranesi doesn’t remember a time before the House. He shares the middle floor with flocks of birds and skeletons of mysterious people long dead. He comes across as an innocent, almost naïve, young man who is content to explore and record the many marvels manifested by the house. Unmoored from reality as we know it, he devises his own system to maintain his journals. Clarke throws us into his fascinating world view from the very first sentence. “When the Moon rose in the Third Northern Hall I went to the Ninth Vestibule to witness the joining of three Tides. This is something that happens once every eight years,” Piranesi recounts.

It’s impossible to ignore the parallels between his situation and the lockdowns we’ve all experienced this year, even though he does have the advantage of being confined within a home as large as the world. One can’t help worrying for him, especially when he introduces us to his only friend, a mysterious character who doesn’t belong to the House but visits it when he can. It just feels off — and one realises that unexplored territories bring wonder as well as danger.

Clarke, whose debut novel bagged the 2005 Hugo Award for Best Novel, is good at crafting this kind of slow burn. She makes readers soar in delight, carrying them away to unearthly worlds full of fascinating people, places and magic, which inspire the imagination of even hardened sci-fi and fantasy fans. Then delicately, slowly, she weaves in darker narrative threads that strike such an ominous tone that we become aware of a nameless peril. We fear that what we’ve read about so far is child’s play compared to the unimaginable scale of the inhuman forces that form the fabric of her strange universe. And so we follow Piranesi as he is forced to confront the true nature of his world as well as his own existence.

Piranesi doesn’t feel obliged to provide a reader with all the answers — after all, the miracle of magic isn’t dulled by the absence of reason or utility. Piranesi is for the reader who can soak in the magic of the moment and be thrilled by Clarke’s descriptions of a wonderful and unique universe. It may not be the Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell sequel fans have been waiting for. But, then again, there’s nothing quite like Piranesi either.

Varsha Venugopal is a freelance writer based in Chennai

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Published on October 23, 2020
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