Book Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Title: Piranesi
Author: Susanna Clarke
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publication date: September 15, 2020
Length: 245 pages
Genre: Fiction/fantasy
Source: Purchased

Rating: 5 out of 5.

From the New York Times bestselling author of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, an intoxicating, hypnotic new novel set in a dreamlike alternative reality.

Piranesi’s house is no ordinary building: its rooms are infinite, its corridors endless, its walls are lined with thousands upon thousands of statues, each one different from all the others. Within the labyrinth of halls an ocean is imprisoned; waves thunder up staircases, rooms are flooded in an instant. But Piranesi is not afraid; he understands the tides as he understands the pattern of the labyrinth itself. He lives to explore the house.

There is one other person in the house—a man called The Other, who visits Piranesi twice a week and asks for help with research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. But as Piranesi explores, evidence emerges of another person, and a terrible truth begins to unravel, revealing a world beyond the one Piranesi has always known.

For readers of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and fans of Madeline Miller’s CircePiranesi introduces an astonishing new world, an infinite labyrinth, full of startling images and surreal beauty, haunted by the tides and the clouds.

How do you write about a book that’s impossible to describe?

When it comes to Piranesi, there’s so little that I can actually say. You have to read this and let it unravel itself to you. Knowing anything in advance would take so much away from the reading experience.

What I can say is this:

A man lives alone in an endless House, with halls and vestibules that seem to stretch on forever. Outside the House, as seen from its windows, are the sun and moon and stars. Inside there are clouds and birds, and on the lower levels, the sea and its rising and falling tides. The House is filled with statues, all depicting different people and creatures.

Also in the House are the remains of 13 people. There’s also the Other — an older man whom the main characters visits with twice a week, who refers to the main character as Piranesi. As far as Piranesi is concerned, the 15 people — two alive, thirteen dead — are all the people in the entire world.

So what’s actually going on here? What is this House? Why is this man here, keeping journals of his daily explorations, fishing on the lower levels, and leaving offerings to the dead?

I’m not telling. 30 pages into this book, I’d decided that it was the weirdest thing I’d read all year. Now that I’m done, that’s still true, but it also was a strangely captivating read. There are revelations and explanations, but the most interesting thing of all is living inside Piranesi’s mind and seeing his worldview.

The writing is beautiful, of course, even when utterly baffling. I ordered this book knowing nothing about it, other than that it was by Susanna Clarke, and that was enough for me to know that I needed it. After the huge size of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (782 pages for the hardcover, over 1000 for the paperback), I was pleasantly surprised to realize how slim Piranesi is.

Piranesi really doesn’t need to be any longer. It’s slim and decisive, telling a weirdly wonderful story with a sparseness and delicacy that make it a perplexing but ultimately fulfilling read.

Of course, there are probably many more layers to this book — issues of identity, memory, and psychology — that I only grasped the barest shadows of. But even without a deeper dive into the underlying meanings and symbolism, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Piranesi.

I just can’t wait for someone else in my life to read it — it’s so hard not to be able to talk about it!

8 thoughts on “Book Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

  1. Intriguing! Actually, your description makes it sound similar to the style of Challenger Deep. Hopefully my library will have Piranesi in soon!

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