This is a remarkable recent book by the author of “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” and “The Ladies of Grace Adieu.” Piranesi has lost much of his memory, all that happened to him before he came to the The House, an immense building that seems to have no end, but he doesn’t realize that as the story opens. He is the narrator of the book, but not a reliable one, though through the discoveries he makes as the story takes place, he gradually regains his memory and the entirety of what has happened to him is revealed.
The House seems to be a place not of our world. It is generally calm and quiet. An unseen ocean must lap around it because tides from that ocean come and go on the lower floors, and occasionally rise into the upper ones. The building has countless rooms and stairways, and decorating most of them are beautiful statues depicting people, animals, mythic beings, and all kinds of events and activities. There are birds that enter and sometimes live in the House. There are sea creatures in the watery lower levels, where Piranesi fishes and gathers shellfish and seaweed for sustenance, but mostly the vast building is empty. Piranesi spends much of his time exploring and writing about The House in his journals. One other person is sometimes there, who Piranesi calls “The Other.” He is a man who seems to be from another place, a man who wears fine clothes and has odd devices. Sometimes he helps Piranesi by giving him things he needs like clothes, and Piranesi often helps The Other with his rituals and reports to him on what he’s found in his explorations. The Other believes The House holds the key to great powers, and he wants to find them.
Gradually, as the story unfolds, Piranesi begins to learn more about The Other and how he came to be in The House. There are many things that trouble him, and even his own memories are suspect. Clues to the truth are found in things The Other tells him, and when Piranesi meets another person in The House, more clues are revealed. There are things in Piranesi’s own early journals that help him regain memories he has lost, but The Other tells Piranesi that they are both in danger from yet another person that is trying to find him and kill him, adding suspense and drama to the story. Piranesi himself is brave and resourceful, but also afraid not only of the dangers predicted by The Other, but by his own past and uncomfortable flashes of memory. When he begins to find signs of another person in The House, he feels he must contact her to find out the truth.
This is the best book I have read in a long time. The language and atmosphere are beautiful and intriguing, the mystery of the main character is fascinating, and Piranesi himself is complex and simple at the same time, a person I felt kinship with. The setting is equally fascinating, and the book is full of wonders. There are subtle connections to the painter Piranesi and also C.S. Lewis’s book “The Magician’s Nephew,” but they aren’t really important to the story.