Book Review: Piranesi, Susanna Clarke

Oh my goodness!

This was just sublime! It took a few chapters to get into and was not what I had expected at all from the author of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell but once you were in, this was a novel that did not let go and which haunts the reader long after reading it!

It is unapologetically challenging and fantastical, and rightly deserves its place in the Women’s Prize shortlist and must be in the running for taking the prize on 8th September!

Piranesi lives in the House. Perhaps he always has.

In his notebooks, day after day, he makes a clear and careful record of its wonders: the labyrinth of halls, the thousands upon thousands of statues, the tides that thunder up staircases, the clouds that move in slow procession through the upper halls. On Tuesdays and Fridays Piranesi sees his friend, the Other. At other times he brings tributes of food to the Dead. But mostly, he is alone.

Messages begin to appear, scratched out in chalk on the pavements. There is someone new in the House. But who are they and what do they want? Are they a friend or do they bring destruction and madness as the Other claims?

Lost texts must be found; secrets must be uncovered. The world that Piranesi thought he knew is becoming strange and dangerous.

The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.

Clarke creates a novel in which – for the main – we only have two characters: Piranesi (which is not his name but is the name he has been given) has such a childlike naive charm to him; in contrast The Other is dapper, knowing and condescending. They only meet occasionally and The Other is on a somewhat fruitless search for hidden knowledge that Piranesi contributes to without any real investment. For the most part, we follow Piransi as he explores, fishes in, wonders at and cares for The House.

The House that seems infintely large, abounds in statuary, is rich with fish in the flooded lower levels and clouds and birdlife in the upper levels. It is – for the reader – rich in symbolism and metaphor, but no meaning is appended to it. Just as Piranesi can read and interpret the movement of birds between the statues in whatever way makes sense to him, so can we interpret The House.

Clarke does invest her tale with a plot – and with layers and layers of narrative contained in Piranesi’s notebooks which have been kept methodically and lovingly over years – as the truth about the House, about the Other and how Piranesi arrived in the House are revealed. It is – for all the fantastical elements – somehow utterly credible and authentic. It would be a disservice to Clarke – and to you as potential readers – to reveal any more of those revelations!

Some of Piranesi’s characters are a little lightly sketched perhaps: Thirteen, the Prophet (I shall leave you to discover these!) and The Other felt perhaps like ciphers rather than characters… but that is a result of our narrator, not our author: Piranesi’s innocence and charm and passivity is a barrier to the creation of well rounded characterisation (of the type that we know Clarke is capable of from Jonathan Strange) and it is to Clarke’s credit that she gave Piranesi his own voice so authentically!

What I Liked (Loved!)

  • The character of Piranesi – his innocent joy and simple pleasure in being in the House – his acceptance of a fate that to the reader seems sparse and difficult – was infectiously delightful and his confusion and fear and sense of betrayal when he slowly uncovered the truth was so touching. He was charming from the first page, and somehow with each event and each discovery he became more charming and affecting.
  • The House – it was beautiful and simple and enigmatic and just wonderful, a character with its own whims and tempers within the novel. In a world that has suffered 18 months of lockdown and regular bouts of self-isolation, this seemed particularly pertinent. It is a refuge? A home? A prison? A Narnia (there seems a range of echoes of Narnia here, including a range of fauns in the statuary)? Plato’s cave? All of these? Or is it simply The House?

“The House is valuable because it is the House. It is enough in and of Itself. It is not the means to an end.”

  • The Albatrosses – were these perhaps an echo of The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner? I could perhaps opine about similarities between the two texts at some detail! But the way in which Clarke lets Piranesi describe the approach of the albatrosses, the majesty and physicality and otherness of the birds was just gorgeous and it is no surprise that Piranesi named the year in which these events took place “THE YEAR THE ALBATROSS CAME TO THE SOUTH-WESTERN HALLS”.
  • The language – it was simplistic and sparse and austere in places, which is a stark contrast to the wonderful richness of the language in Jonathan Strange, but it was no less powerful and perhaps more affecting. A lot of the language – the benedictions Piranesi gives people, the reverence he shows the dead and the skeletons that he uncovers, has an almost religious rhythm. It is gorgeous.
  • The worldcraft – the way Clarke creates such a unique and ethereally other world, and slips into it mundane and familiar references to a biscuit tin, or multivitamins or shoes – makes the revelations later simultaneously feel startling and inevitable at the same time.

What I Disliked (or Liked Less)

  • I found the conclusion a lacked a little – just a little – focus: it just sort of drifted away and whilst the main plot was fully resolved, I felt that the new life on which Piranesi embarked at the end was a little formless…. but then, is not life just sort of like that? It goes on…?

There is a profundity, a morality to this novel which is deeply movig.

I shall leave you, however, with Piranesi’s own benediction:

“May your Paths be safe, your Floors unbroken and may the House fill your eyes with Beauty.”

Overall:

Characters:

Plot / Pace:

Worldbuilding:

Structure:

Language:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing

Date: 15th September 2020

Available: Amazon, Bloomsbury Publishing

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