An oddly specific thing that I’m drawn to in books is the personification of rooms. It’s a rather bizarre device, so I don’t come across it all too often, but when I do, I’m thrilled. It’s essentially when authors use physical spaces to embody things we wouldn’t usually see.
For example, Lauren Eggert-Crowe wrote a poetry pamphlet called The Exhibit where the reader is invited to walk through a series of rooms that speak only to them: “The exhibit is a lightning storm. You walk into it thinking you will die or learn something.” In Matt Bell’s novel The House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, a grieving woman creates underground rooms so that she can take things out of her head and trap them there. One room is filled with bees, another is filled only with the sound of bees. It’s an ethereal worldbuilding, a little like Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, making tiny universes in small spaces so we can observe them. A TV show that exemplifies this is Locke and Key, based on Joe Hill’s series of graphic novels, where the Locke family control a group of magical keys in their manor house, some of which open their own heads, so they can wander around their brains and hold up jars of memories, often with disastrous consequences. I’ll also never forget that scene in Return to Oz (a frankly terrifying sequel) where Dorothy has to walk around a room, trying to guess which vases or antiques are her friends, all of whom have been transformed and trapped inside emerald objects.
In a similar vein, Susanna Clarke, the 2021 winner of The Women’s Prize for Fiction, dives headfirst into this allegorical realm. Piranesi, both very different to her first novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell yet equally full of magic, is about a narrator who wanders through the halls of a seemingly living, breathing house; a house that’s forever expanding, just like our own universe. There are tides that rage through the halls, and clouds that fly high above. Piranesi is cataloguing all that he finds in this world, a world where he believes he is only one of two living people. It’s a hard book to describe, because it is so wonderfully strange, yet because it’s a text about a main character trying to understand and piece together otherworldly things, it almost invites the reader to do the same: understand the book through fragments of other strange worlds we may have come across before. Reading it, I couldn’t help but think of the main character in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun — a solar-powered AF (Artificial Friend) struggling to understand humanity; I thought of Arcadia by Iain Pears, where scientists and novelists come together to bring fictional worlds to life. I also thought of Lyra studying the alethiometer in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, as Piranesi often takes meaning from the movement of the birds, depending on which statues they land on. The comparisons to His Dark Materials stretch further, given that Piranesi’s world is described as a “Distributary World — it was created by ideas flowing out of another world”, and there are nods to Narnia, too. The novel no doubt takes some of its inspiration from Giovanni Battista Piranesi, an Italian architect from the 18th century, who famously drew vast imaginary prisons.
The other day, I described the reading experience of Piranesi as “like the Calm App”, and I stand by that. There’s something very soothing about the constellating nature of the book, a comforting darkness stretching out before you with the sound of waves in the background. It’s a book of layers, and yet another is added when you discover that Clarke wrote this novel after becoming chronically ill. Warped time and constant worldbuilding are things that disabled and chronically ill people understand all too well (I speak from experience), and Piranesi, whilst feeling isolated, also has the overwhelming feeling of being observed.
It’s a stunning book, and if you would like to spend a good few hours on the other side of the looking glass, making surreal lists and observing beautiful geography, it might be time to pick up a copy.
Jen Campbell is a bestselling author and disability advocate. She has written ten books for children and adults, the latest of which is The Sister Who Ate Her Brothers. She also writes for TOAST Book Club.
Images courtesy of Jen Campbell.