Like many people, I ended up reading more than usual this year. Sleep being especially hard to come by at certain points during the year, I found myself reading well into the night many times. The stand-out book for me this year is actually one of my recent reads, Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. It is her sophomore novel, arriving sixteen years after Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. At a relatively short two hundred and seventy-two pages, Piranesi is a quick read, but though it only took me a couple days to finish, this book has stuck with me ever since I read it. It’s strange and mysterious and in a way, the perfect book for 2020. It captures the feeling of isolation and strange disassociation of this year in quarantine, and it suggests that after such an experience, you can never really be the same.
The book centers on Piranesi, a person living in a vast House made up of many halls and vestibules, where great statues depict everything from minotaurs to women carrying beehives. Piranesi is alone in the House except for thirteen skeletons and the Other, a nattily dressed man who comes twice a week to conduct a ritual to try and acquire the Great and Secret Knowledge. Piranesi helps the Other in his quest to attain this knowledge, but soon, Piranesi begins to suspect the world he knows is not quite the world, and a mysterious 16th person arrives to upend his expectations and reality. Clarke masterfully unwinds Piranesi’s reality and reveals the truth about the House, the Other, and the Great and Secret Knowledge. You don’t have to be a fantasy nerd to get into Piranesi, with its atmospheric descriptions and evolving mystery about the 16th person and what’s really going on in the House.
As I was reading Piranesi, I just kept thinking how 2020 this book is with its shifting perceptions and alternate realities. Right now, a significant portion of Americans are living in an alternate reality in full view of everyone else, and I keep wondering how we’re ever supposed to reconcile this. It’s like Piranesi and the Other, with one chasing a Great and Secret Knowledge that might not even exist, while the other one is just trying to get through their f-cking day. At a certain point, these two objectives just might not be reconcilable, and you have to ask if a person obsessed with acquiring arcane knowledge to the exclusion of all else is a person you can really be friends with—insert QAnon reference here. Piranesi’s world seems full of wonder and possibility, but it is also a place of malevolence and treachery. And it’s a place that competing objectives are increasingly making unlivable. I 100% understand that feeling.
But Piranesi also captures the loneliness of isolation, an acute feeling in 2020. Piranesi is content in the House, he has made companions of skeletons and rooks. And yet he still anxiously awaits each meeting with the Other, and the tantalizing possibility of a 16th person is the possibility of new interactions, of making a new friend. He also has a kind of forced industriousness, occupying his days with self-assigned tasks. Some are vital to living, like fishing for food, but others are just done to fill time, like cataloguing all the statues in the House. We’ve all felt that self-motivated drive to keep busy, to learn a hobby, clean the house, take up a new workout regimen—something, ANYTHING to fill time (I learned how to make enchiladas and perfected champagne cupcakes). Piranesi’s busywork reminds me of the busywork of 2020, the “let’s clean out THIS cupboard” of it all.
I read a lot of great books this year—and finally finished The Faerie Queene!—but Piranesi sticks out as the one that rattled my cage the most. It would be great in any year, but in this year, its chill lonely vibes and mysterious alternate realities hit especially hard. But if quirky fantasy isn’t your thing, I also recommend Shawn Levy’s The Castle on Sunset, a history of the Chateau Marmont that is a must-read for all gossip hounds; Betty Ren Wright’s excellent YA mysteries The Dollhouse Murders and Christina’s Ghost, two books I cannot believe children are allowed to read; and Solutions and Other Problems, a new collection of illustrated essays from Hyperbole and a Half’s Allie Brosh. Hand’s down the funniest book I read this year.