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Clarke, Susanna

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1959-    ) UK author, partner of Colin Greenland from 1996; she began to publish work of genre interest with "The Ladies of Grace Adieu" in Starlight 1 (anth 1996) edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden, which was assembled with other tales in the thematic Raven King sequence as The Ladies of Grace Adieu (coll 2006), most of these stories serving as pendants to her first novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004), for which she remains best known. This complex Alternate World fantasy set in early nineteenth-century Britain initially depicts a world that might be recognizable to Jane Austen, in a style impeccably compatible with hers, and seems for many pages to work primarily as a Fantasy of Manners; but gradually the narrative sharpens into a depiction of a land approaching the moment when – under the Godgame control of the Immortal John Uskglass, the Raven King who had ruled Scotland for centuries – it will be ushered into a Faerie-like higher world, an Instauration immanent in the last pages, though not in fact described [for Faerie and Instauration Fantasy here, and Fantasy of Manners above, see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell won several awards including the Hugo and World Fantasy Award for best novel, plus a Locus Award as best first novel.

Clarke is of strong if indirect sf interest for her second novel, Piranesi (2020), a compact but fertile tale told in the form of a precisely dated journal kept by the apparently thirty-year-old, essentially solitary inhabitant of a limitless House. His only visitor, known initially as the Other, has dubbed him "Piranesi", though that is not his true name, because the protagonist's House – seemingly the only building in the world (which may be a Pocket Universe) – is in fact a vast multi-chambered Labyrinth evocative of the fantastic architectures of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, but not, as might be expected, of the famous etchings of Carceri ["Prisons"]; several of the oneiric visions in this hauntedly agoraphobic sequence are set literally Underground, most of them are crowded with inmates, envision impossible geometries, but with little sculpture in evidence. The works significantly evoked in Piranesi are instead the etched views or Vedute of ancient Rome, with exaggeratedly vast Halls and Rooms and Vestibules bedecked with statuary depicting iconic visions, some epiphanic, open to the heavens, and spacious. "Piranesi's" House is not therefore a prison but an imaginably large dwelling set in its own universe, but also in ours.

As the novel unfolds, various hints are given as to the relationship between "Piranesi's" stamping ground and early twenty-first century England, along with evocations of Jorge Luis Borges, Gene Wolfe. David Mitchell, the Television series Westworld, and so on. The reader is moved to think of the House in ontological terms as a "Distributory World", and in temporal terms as an enclave disengaged from the present (J W Dunne is cited more than once). In the end, easy simplifications are eschewed. The radiantly good "Piranesi" is neither mentally ill nor a victim of incarceration (see Crime and Punishment; Keep; Prison), but a knowing "Minotaur" (he is so named more than once) at the heart of an Edifice whose Crosshatch multivalencies he both deciphers and encompasses [for Crosshatch and Edifice see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. Whether he manages this Equipoise through sf means or incantation (or both, or more), it is not perhaps important to decide: as in all cusp works of Fantastika, the story must, at least at first, be understood literally, or not at all. This novel won the non-genre-specific £30,000 UK Women's Prize for Fiction. [JC]

see also: Kitschies.

Susanna Mary Clarke

born Nottingham, Nottinghamshire: 1 November 1959



Raven King

individual titles

  • Piranesi (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020) [hb/David Mann/Shutterstock]


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