Higgins begins from the ancient myth in which Theseus, a hero, attempts to enter a labyrinth and kill a man-eating monster that is half-man and half-bull. (She relates to me how as a child she was lucky enough to be taken to Knossos, in Crete, the real place at the heart of the Minotaur myth. “The place entered my imagination,” she says.) Because the labyrinth is vast and few people find their way back out, Theseus’s lover, Ariadne, gives him a ball of red thread to mark his way by unwinding it behind him. The Middle English word ‘clew’, meaning a ball of thread, has given us our word ‘clue’.
Her book winds its way through the history of mazes – her favourite is the library-labyrinth in Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose (1980) – but it also suggests that life has a weird geometry, and Higgins leads us along some of the switchbacks, spirals, and dead ends of her own. The path to knowledge is involuted, perhaps irrational. And although the colour red is a key motif in the design of her book, we might not find our way back out.
The labyrinth in Piranesi, writes Clarke, “plays tricks on the mind. It makes people forget things. If you’re not careful it can unpick your entire personality”. The ancient labyrinths were symbols of losing your way and perhaps losing everything. We moderns are more ambivalent – mightn’t loss of personality be a good thing? Certainly in Clarke’s Piranesi, the dissolution of self by some larger, older indeterminate source of meaning is shown to be a good thing. Wandering in the labyrinth without a goal is a good thing, to be revelled in: “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable, its Kindness infinite.” As Clarke told The New Yorker, describing the book she’s now working on, “at the centre of things, there’s a secret or mystery, and it is joyful”.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.