I read Susanna Clarke’s much acclaimed Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell in September of last year. ( Yes, I was late to the party!) While I found a lot of great things in the book, I felt it to be needlessly verbose and the character’s problematic and once I finished reading it, there was nothing but a sense of relief that I survived till the end! Naturally this foray into the fantasy world left me convinced that Susanna Clarke was not for me and there are some books and authors that do not work for and you should not spend your limited time on them.
Then I heard that the author’s second novel had won the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction and this book was not as cumbersome as 1000 plus pages and instead was a mere 200 something; again belonging to the magical-fantasia genre. I heard great things about the book from everyone but I was once bitten, twice shy and I was NOT going to attempt a Susanna Clarke so soon. I needed recovery time
The one bright morning, around the last few days of 2021, I stumbled upon Brona’s excellent review of this book. I really respect Brona’s tastes when it comes to reading and her ability to discern a good narrative from an average pretending to be excellent type of writing. Besides being an excellently nuanced review, there was particularly one phrase that stuck to my mind –
In our Covid-19 pandemic world, where isolation and solitude have become the norm, Piranesi’s approach to living in his infinite world can be enlightening. His deliberate day-by-day living, paying attention to every small detail, caring for his environment and honouring those who came before him provide him with sense of peace and connectedness.
In the last 2 odd years, I have closely come to understand what this feels. First COVID and then Cancer confined me to my house and made me appreciate the simple joys of everyday things, around me. I was always a homebody but these years taught me the value of sitting in the sun in my balcony, of crisp fresh sheets on the bed, a perfectly boiled egg for the breakfast and finding contentment in them, beauty in them. This part therefore resonated especially strongly and before I knew it, the books was bought and I began reading , what I never thought I would read atleast not at such close quarters after the Mr. Strange reading .
Piranesi lives in a huge house with infinite halls that are filled with all kinds of statues. The house is divided into 3 layers; the lowest being that of oceans, the second of living beings and solid land and third being the level of the sky and the clouds. Piranesi leads a peaceful and an engaged life, fishing fish and seaweed for his sustenance from the lower levels, taking care of the other being of the house, birds or dead humans, documenting his journal and in enjoying the process of discovering the house. There is another human inhabitant in the house, The Other, who is Piranesi’s colleague and together they are in the quest of A Great and Secret Knowledge that will give them power and immortality. As Piranesi works through the halls of the house, calculating the tides and documenting the stars, that will help in the discovery of this Great and Secret Knowledge, he begins to realise that there may another person in the house. Soon he starts finding evidence of another life, finally unraveling a past and forcing choices that Piranesi did not even know existed.
I loved this book! I loved its themes of kindness and generosity and of finding joy and fulfilment in everyday life. I loved Piranesi’s character which seems to embody all that is sincere and honorable and most importantly the child like wonder that he has towards the house. His gratitude for what the house gave I think can serve as an example for many of us, stuck in a constant consumerist, where we do not stop to appreciate what we have or all the wonderful things that nature provides us. I also appreciated the moral struggle that Piranesi experiences against doing evil to someone who has done him the same; a dilemma that many grapple against everyday and not many who are able to make the right choice. There is not a usual defined plot arc; there is plotline and a sense of suspense, but there is so much more to this book that to say it is a thriller or a fantasy book. The prose is lyrical and there are philosophical insights as to what is meaningful life. This is multilayered book, that like Brona says needs a re-read, maybe several, to fully appreciate it’s narrative, beyond the obvious.
This was a magnificent start to the bookish adventures of 2022! There are very few modern authors who have provoked such sentiments in me, but this book is a keeper, an almost metaphorical tale on some of the essential truths of life!