Some books are easy to read but lack depth. Other books are difficult to read but contain great wisdoms.
Every once in a while, however, someone writes a book that is simultaneously simple and sophisticated.
That’s always something to celebrate! Books like this have something for everyone. They can be read on multiple levels. There’s the simple, fun story; and there’s the deeper meaning. Because the author uses words in accessible ways, these deeper meanings are available to everyone—not just those who have the time and energy to wade through a scholarly tome.
People in my Silent Book Club have been raving about this book for weeks. I am pleased to introduce the 2020 novel Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke!
This is a fantasy novel that’s not too long, and not too hard to read. At the beginning of the novel, the reader is introduced to a man living in a very strange place called the “House.” The remainder of the novel consists of the reader trying to figure out what the “House” is, who else might live there, how the man ended up there, what’s real and what’s not, and other metaphysical questions.
Yes, metaphysical questions. That’s the sophisticated part, actually. Reading this novel is an exercise in philosophy. There are so many interesting facts and occurrences to think about in this novel. There are so many parallels to be drawn to our world. And the ending gave the perfect touch: It literally made me gasp, as I thought of the world in an entirely new way.
You have to be incredibly smart to pull this off. I bow to Susanna Clarke. It’s one thing to write a fantasy novel. It’s another thing to write a book on philosophy. But to do both of these at once, and for it to come off so smoothly? I’m seriously impressed. Honestly, I don’t remember being so caught up in a book, both narratively and philosophically, since childhood.
Here’s an example of Clarke’s ability to write on two levels:
“Almost as important is the need to guard Myself against the return of illness. To this end I have resolved to take better care of Myself. I must not become so absorbed in my scientific work that I forget to fish and end up with nothing to eat. (The House provides much food for the active and enterprising person. There is no excuse for going hungry!)”
This is pretty simple, right? The reader doesn’t have to work hard at all to discover that the protagonist is a scientist who relies on fish for food. The scientist has been ill in the past due to lack of food. And the scientist finds it moderately difficult, but not impossible, to obtain this all-important food. Reading this passage on a simple level yields a narrative about a person trying to physically survive in a certain environment.
But wait, there’s more. What’s the deal with the capitalized words “Myself” and “House”? What does this signify? Why are “Myself” and “House” given this distinction, but not, for example, the fish or the scientific work? Are “Myself” and “House” existentially superior to the fish and scientific work in some way?
Also, what type of scientific work is the protagonist engaged in? Why is the protagonist here, seemingly alone, in this place where it’s hard to feed oneself? Does the scientific work justify the apparent difficulty of staying alive and well? How is it possible to forget to provide food for oneself? Is this a reliable narrator; or is the narrator unreliable in having thoughts that aren’t quite rational or true?
These types of questions go on and on, and they get deeper and deeper, as the reader reads more and more.
Or, if it’s a five-point scale, five stars!
Or, let’s just say, if it’s an x-point scale, I give this book x stars.
That’s x out of x stars!!
Or, should I say, . . . Stars?