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Wed, 15 May 2024
# 20:37 in ./books

By Susanna Clarke

Score: 3/5

Susanna Clarke had quite a bit of success with her 2004 novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. I liked it, but it's a long book and I had to slog through some of it. You need to be in the right mood to immerse yourself in an alternate magic-suffused Victorian world, with a writing style to match.

Piranesi is her most recent novel, published in 2021. This is a much shorter book, less than 300 pages, but in a similar vein to Jonathan Strange: quite strange and fantastical. A man wanders around a large, many roomed mansion "house", multi-levelled, ramshackle in parts and containing hundreds of strange statues. Some statues on plinths and some seemingly bursting through the walls. With an occasional missing roof, the rain and low cloud might chill the air, and the sea can come crashing through the building. He seems to have a rough and mean form of existence but, child-like, he seems happy enough.

It is quite hallucinatory and odd; some form of larger picture emerges slowly from Clarke's careful interleaving of fragments the "Piranesi" character puts together over the course of time. This is not reality as we know it.

What I most like about Clarke's writing is her positioning of "magic" as being something that is far from the modern conception: a bit of a conjuring trick, superficial entertainment or illusion. Magic is a more primal aspect of the natural world and something to be very wary of indeed. It can be beautiful, perhaps wondrous but also awful and frightening. A "fairy" in this world (see Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell in particular) might be intelligent as well as completely malevolent. You don't want one to take a dislike to you. There are no fairies in Piranesi but there are dark undercurrents of hidden or forgotten knowledge; perhaps best left that way. Beguiling and strange, it was short enough to stay interesting until the end. An enjoyable distraction from the modern world.

© Alastair Sherringham 2023
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