Fantasy Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, and The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, and The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Two newly published fantasy novels this month, very different in content and style.

Piranesi is by Susanna Clarke, the internationally acclaimed author of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. A very strange tale, in the form of the diary of a young man living in a vast and apparently endless building consisting of hundreds of huge statue-lined halls, the lower ones of which are regularly flooded by oceanic tides. This is the only life the man can recall, and he has no concept of what might be outside the building; he does not even know his own name. He is the only occupant, except for "the Other", a man who visits twice a week to give him research tasks to carry out in the building. This routine begins to be shaken by signs of other visitors and the discovery of forgotten volumes of the young man's journal, which gradually reveal to him what is going on.

The writing is highly atmospheric, with the creation of the building reminding me, in its scale, complexity and baroque weirdness, of Peake's Gormenghast. I read the entire 250-page book in one session, which must be a record for me, and I have sent off for the author's other books.


The Midnight Library is an unusual fantasy set in the present day. It concerns a woman in her mid-30s who is in a deep depression because, although she had considerable potential in her youth, a series of life choices haven't worked out for her and she no longer wishes to live. But after taking an overdose, she regains consciousness in the Midnight Library: an endless space filled with bookshelves. She meets a guide who explains to her that all of the books represent different options for her, so that choosing a volume immediately results in her entering that world. If she doesn't like it, she can return to the library and choose a different book. So she experiences what life could have been like for her as a philosopher, an Olympic swimmer, a pop star, a glaciologist, or a happily married mother, among many other things. But (there is bound to be a 'but...') other things change in her alternative worlds and the changes are enough to keep sending her back to the Library. All of the time, she is adding to her knowledge of herself and her understanding of her condition. She is finally forced to act quickly and choose the life she wants.

Matt Haig appears to be a popular philosopher who has published various non-fiction books including Reasons to Stay Alive as well as novels for adults and children. The Midnight Library is described as a "multi-million copy best-seller" and the audiobook version is read by actor Carey Mulligan. As you might guess, it is a "feel-good" type of book which the reader finishes on something of an emotional high. Interestingly different, and possibly even useful to those who are dissatisfied with life.

As a postscript to the above two reviews, I found it curious that within a few weeks of reading them Piranesi remains vividly complete in my memory, but I quickly forgot what The Midnight Library was all about.

(This entry is cross-posted from my science-fiction & fantasy blog.)