Contemporary Novels

PIRANESI by Susanna Clarke

As with several other books I’ve reviewed here, the less you know going into Susanna Clarke’s PIRANESI, the better. If I were you, I’d go read it right now and come back here afterward. If you insist on knowing more before you commit, I will try to spoil as little as possible.

The novel is cast as a journal written by one of two inhabitants of a world that consists of a giant, labyrinthine “House.” The House is a seemingly infinite succession of vast marble halls, vestibules, and staircases, each filled with statues. The lower level opens onto an ocean where the narrator (named “Piranesi” by the other inhabitant, whom the narrator in turn refers to as “the Other”) gathers the kelp and catches the fish that sustain him.  (Giovanni Battista Piranesi was an 18th century artist known for his etchings of labyrinths.)

The pace is perhaps too leisurely at first, as the narrator gives us a tour of his world and what he knows of its history. But just as I was starting to get impatient, the anomalies began to pile up. Journals bearing dates from 2011 and 2012. The Other wearing a neatly pressed three-piece suit. Very slowly, piece by piece, bits of what we consider the “real world” begin to intrude. Other characters appear and before long the plot becomes utterly compelling.

Clarke’s debut, the highly regarded JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL, was remarkable for its intelligence, its erudition, its period-conjuring prose, and the darkness beneath its glittery surface. PIRANESI is no less smart, learned, stylish, and unsettling. It functions admirably in literal terms but also carries allegorical heft. I see the House as an embodiment of mental illness, a prison that confines and isolates the narrator’s consciousness even as it provides a refuge from the chaos of consensual reality.

The novel is not entirely satisfying. It posits benign supernatural forces that strained my credulity. There are many parallel worlds in addition to ours and that of the House, but those are the only two we ever see. I’m pretty sure there are a number of dead bodies that are never accounted for. The narrator conveniently neglects to reread his earlier journal entries until late in the story.

These are minor complaints. Clarke so vividly brings the House to life–the booming of the tides below, the swooping birds, the towering marble statues, the echoing vastness of the place–that it feels permanently engraved in my mind. Likewise the narrator’s gradual yet inevitable fall from innocence. To Clarke’s great credit, she never downplays the emotional aspects of the story in favor of the intellectual ones. The House may be made of cold marble, but her characters are warm and alive.

Contemporary Novels

THE SEARCHER by Tana French

Cal is a retired Chicago cop who has moved to a secluded village in western Ireland in the wake of an ugly divorce. His neighbors’ smiles barely hide their deep distrust of outsiders, and Cal is okay with that. He just wants to be left alone to restore his crumbling cottage and nurse his wounded heart and his qualms about his former job. Life has other plans.

Through no fault of his own, he gets caught in a trap set by a 13-year-old neighbor. Because French, among her many, many other virtues, is very, very smart, there’s no easy way out. As far as I can tell, in fact, no way out at all. And so he’s blackmailed into looking for a missing brother, and in the process he’s forced to uncover the lies, desperation, and violence so shallowly buried under the idyllic surface of the town.

THE SEARCHER is quite unlike French’s other novels and, as one of her Irish characters might say, fair play to her for not repeating herself. It’s her first novel in third person, and while it’s not her first in present tense, the present tense feels very intrusive in this one. The viewpoint character being from the US affects not just the vocabulary of the book, but its attitude toward guns, privacy, drinking, and so much else. French was born in Vermont, and she mostly gets the voice right (although we don’t say “not best pleased” over here). The pace is slow, there’s a lot of description of nature, and Cal is the most easygoing and unflappable character in any of her books.

What doesn’t change from her earlier novels is French’s acute psychological insight and her ability to construct a scene of riveting complexity. Her first novel, IN THE WOODS, features one of the most harrowing scenes I’ve ever read, where the narrator has to listen to a confession that everyone around him believes to be invented, but he knows to be the agonizing truth. FAITHFUL PLACE describes patricidal rage with staggering accuracy and insight. BROKEN HARBOR melds setting and story so perfectly that one could not exist without the other.

If THE SEARCHER’s title reminds you of a John Ford film, that’s no accident. French has said in interviews that she immersed herself in western novels like LONESOME DOVE and TRUE GRIT while writing the book. There are certainly ways in which THE SEARCHER resembles a classic western–the outsider who takes on entrenched power in defense of a persecuted family, just like in SHANE–but it ends up in a far different, and far more complicated place.

Historical Fiction

AFFINITY by Sarah Waters

Selina is a young, beautiful medium with astonishing spiritual powers. Margaret is a woman on the verge of spinsterhood, nursing a broken heart. Millbank is a historical women’s prison in 1870s London where the two women meet and are drawn to each other. And both women have secrets they dare not reveal.

Waters’ second novel, from 1999, shows her already at her full powers, surpassing 1998’s brilliant but somewhat picaresque TIPPING THE VELVET and paving the way for her masterpiece, FINGERSMITH, in 2002. All three novels are set in the Victorian era, and all three are full of exquisite and surprising period detail–for example, the coconut husks from which the Millbank prisoners are forced to pluck coir fibers (used in mats and sacking) until their fingers bleed. Romantic passion of the forbidden sort figures prominently in all three, and they all feature flawed protagonists that Waters makes us care deeply for.

Another common element in the three books is Waters’ sympathy for the poor and the disadvantaged. In AFFINITY she draws clear parallels between the women inside and outside the Millbank walls: Selina is bound and gagged by the male spirit, Peter Quick, that she conjures. Margaret is a prisoner of her mother’s expectations. Married women are imprisoned by their husbands and single women by the rigid mores of society. Those who disobey end up in Millbank, or the graveyard. The last line of the novel reveals that the one character we thought had transcended those bonds is in fact in thrall to another.

Waters’ greatest literary debt is to Daphne Du Maurier, with whom she shares a magician’s skills of misdirection, an uncanny ability to evoke a past era, and a quiet but relentless belief in women’s empowerment. Her prose is understated and deeply rooted in her characters’ viewpoints, but nonetheless powerful:

“After the house was locked I kept my cloak about me, and stood a long time at my window, raising the sash a little to feel the thin rain of the new year. At three o’clock there were still boats ringing their bells, and men’s voices from the river, and boys running fast along the Walk; but for a single moment as I watched, the clamour and the bustle died, and then the morning was perfectly still. The rain was fine–too fine to spoil the surface of the Thames, it shone like glass, and where the lamps of the bridges and the water-stairs showed there were wriggling snakes of red and yellow light. The pavement gleamed quite blue–like china plates.”

If you haven’t experienced Waters’ work, you are missing out on some of the smartest, most enthralling, most affecting writing being done today. AFFINITY is a great place to begin correcting your oversight.