Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021, there is no need for me to praise this book. Plenty of people have already written about it and said how much they enjoyed it. For me, it is the invention of this novel that marks it out. It has a calm and rather antiquated feel. The voice of the narrator, writing his careful journal entries, is eloquent and precise. He describes his days with measured detail.

We begin with him in the House, the endless labyrinth of rooms and halls filled with expressive statues that rise up on all sides. These rooms and halls shift with the flow of the tides whose seas ebb and flow throughout the House.

There is only one other living person in the halls – the Other, who calls our narrator Piranesi. There are, however, infinite numbers of fish and birds and plant life. Piranesi mostly lives off seaweed and dries in for use a fuel.

Then the Other tells him someone is coming – an enemy that Piranesi must hide from for fear of being sent mad. From that point on everything changes…

Piranesi is a beautiful exploration of the human spirit and its way of meeting circumstance with either hope and invention or anger and frustration. Observation brings knowledge but it can also breed either hope or despair depending upon one’s personality.

The halls and statues grow coral when they’ve been flooded, or provide shelter and fresh drinking water from the rain. Sometimes walls collapse or become hidden in the shrouds of low-hanging clouds. It’s an intriguing world within which our own finds a silent mirror. The fabric of our reality feels porous, shimmers with the probability of other parallel worlds only a thought away. It’s hard not to be mesmerised by this vision.

If this sounds like your sort of thing, don’t hesitate. A British Borges opens its covers for you to enter into its many paths.

I’ll be reviewing Peaces by Helen Oyeyemi next.

The Books of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

This beautiful book contains all the world of Earthsea that Ursula Le Guin has set down in writing. Complete with prefaces, afterwards, maps, background in the different continents and islands, the volume has everything you might want to know about this magical world of mages, magic, humans and dragons.

It begins with what was published as a novel for young adults, A Wizard of Earthsea, which introduces us to Ged and the world of magic as we follow his life from childhood into young adulthood. He travels from his home of Gont, to Roke and the seat of the great mages where he unleashes something from the darkness that takes a whole series of novels to fully explore.

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Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

I probably should have written this review right after finishing reading Sally Rooney’s latest novel, but I didn’t. I enjoyed devouring the book, reading it pretty much without interruption until it was done. I enjoyed the careful, considered distance of the narrator and the witty dialogue that seemed to take us one step further away from the novelistic concept of being able to read another’s thoughts. This is, however, countered by the inclusion of emails, written very much like letters, that pass between the two central female characters, Alice and Eileen, both in their 30s.

Alice is a novelist struggling with the pressures of fame who is recovering from depression and seriously uncertain about the value of writing, but at the same time eager to defend her art.

Eileen works for a literary magazine and despite being beautiful and super smart, is unable to generate enough self-confidence to write her own work and to control her love life.

Both women have love interests in the book, which take characteristically for Sally Rooney (and realistically) unstraightforward trajectories based on miscommunication and emotional baggage.

In between the dramatic scenes of courtship and friendship are rather tortured debates about politics, class and sex as well as passages of description that question the equivalence of Alice’s boyfriend’s work in a factory with her work at home on a laptop. Power and its misuses, the agency of a middle class literary folk, are all up for debate and there is a self-conscious level of introspection that is both fascinating and occasionally overbearing. 

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The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq by Hassan Blasim

I read The Iraqi Christ by the same author – Hassam Blasim – and translator, Jonathan Wright, some time ago. You can see that review here. Though some of the stories appear in both collections my response to them has changed somewhat. They are still miraculous stories that play with the traditions of expositional storytelling and the magic of the jinn, but their exploration of violence and the workings of fate, predestination, or simply the arbitrary disconcern of the universe, feel more poignant and more painful to me. These are deeply philosophical and political stories that draw particular attention to the plight of those in war, and to refugees, teasing out the complexities of human conflict.

It would feel trite to give summaries of the stories, partly because I’m not sure I would do them justice after just one reading, but partly because you should go and read them for yourselves. I will, however, choose one story to quote from, ‘The Reality and the Record’ in which we listen to the story of a refugee telling his ‘official’ rather than his ‘real’ story to the immigration office. He says he was an ambulance driver in Baghdad who was serially kidnapped and forced, by different groups, to perform in videos, proclaiming a different identity and set of beliefs, which were then posted online to raise the profile and issues of the latest group who had kidnapped him. In his job as an ambulance driver, he had admired his boss whom he called the Professor. 

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