February 9, 2022


Susanna Clarke


(February 9, 2022)

A fascinating and very strange book about a man, of scholarly bent, whose world is a vast — perhaps endless — labyrinth of grand marble halls and vestibules, all lined with monumental statuary. He calls this The House, and he is the Beloved Child Of The House. It provides for him: the seas that flow through the lower halls provide fish and mussels and nutritious seaweed. Fresh rain can be collected from the misty upper halls. He knows of one other living person, whom he calls The Other and whom he meets by appointment, twice a week. He tells us early on that he knows that there have been at least 14 other persons who have lived in the history of the world, as he cares for their skeletons and brings them offerings of food and water. His knowledge of The House and its statuary is encyclopedic, and he keeps a journal using a calendar of his own devising.

This is a fascinating study of the idea that Primitive Man thought differently, and experienced the world in ways we do not, carefully elaborated because Primitive Man was not stupid. Was there a time when people were not alienated? Perhaps. I think I disagree with Clarke: my intuition suggests that, back when people were running on the savannah, the institutions we are tempted to call “the cave-bear clan” and “the winter sodality” were more like “The Royal Institution For Nutrition” and “The Department Of State.” Still, Clarke thinks things through, and the writing is often delicious.