Sign Up for My Newsletter! FREE BOOK!Sign Up for Newsletter!

Review: Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke

Another stellar fantasy from the pen of Susanna Clarke

Back in the beginning of 2022, I finally read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke, a book I had tried to read and failed to get through the first time I tried over 15 years ago. You can read my review of that book here, but let’s just summarize and say that I LOVED IT WITH AN UNDYING LOVE to give you the jist.

One reason I read JS&MN was to gear myself up for reading Piranesi, Susanna Clarke’s new novel, which I had heard was fantastic, but a bit strange and hard to get into. Seeing as the attempt at her first book had left exactly that impression on me, I was determined to try it again to give myself a chance to appreciate her writing style before tackling Piranesi.

Fast forward. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is now firmly ensconced near the top of my list of most-loved books of all time. Which made me really excited to tackle Piranesi. I left it to the end of the year so I could book-end my year with both novels. So, once my book was out the door, I rewarded myself with Piranesi.

Piranesi has won several awards, including the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction

It did not disappoint. It certainly has a different flavour and feel than JS&MN, but it is no less entertaining.

A Strange World

Piranesi is the name of the main character of the book, and all we know about him at the beginning is that he lives in a strange world made up of a large (unendingly large, it seems) house filled with strange and beautiful statues. Tides regularly flood the lower floors of the house, or House, as Piranesi refers to it.

The story is told from Piranesi’s point of view, from a series of journal entries. In the opening pages, he gives us a description of the World — its Hallways, Vestibules, and Statues; and the Tides, Clouds and Rain, all of which he regularly encounters in his journeys throughout the House.

Piranesi tells us there are fifteen people in the World, and that only he, and another person he calls the Other, are alive. The rest are skeletal remains he has discovered in his journeys through the House. He does not know who they are, but he has given them names, such as the Biscuit Box Man, the People of the Alcove, and the Folded-up Child. Piranesi regularly visits these remains and cares for the bones, bringing flowers and other offerings.

The Other is a man, whom Piranesi meets twice a week. Piranesi tells us that both he and the Other are engaged in a search for something the Other calls the Great and Hidden Knowledge. The Other believes this Knowledge is hidden somewhere in the World, and the Knowledge will bring them enormous powers. The Other sends Piranesi out to search the House for this Knowledge and report back his findings during their meetings.

This insertion of the Other at the beginning of the book is the first clue (along with the skeletal remains) that something is very wrong in this world. The other thing that sends an alarm bell ringing right at the beginning of the book is Piranesi’s description of his journals. He tells us they start with the label of December 2011 – June 2012 (Journal 1), June 2012-November 2012 (Journal 2) and the third which was, “originally labelled November 2012 but… has been crossed out at some point and relabelled Thirteenth Day in the Twelfth Month in the Year of Weeping and Wailing, to the Fourth Day of the Seventh Month in the Year I Discovered the Coral Halls.” 

At this point your spidey-senses are definitely tingling, no?

A Slow Unravelling of the Mystery

The book that follows these opening revelations is a slow unravelling of the mystery of Piranesi and his strange world. His relationship to the menacing Other is also unveiled throughout the course of the book. At the beginning Piranesi thinks of the Other as his friend but gradually realizes the Other is a threat to everything Piranesi holds dear.

In Piranesi, Susanna Clarke has turned her formidable writing skills and imagination to a creation of a whole new world, and I loved exploring it. As soon as I realized that this world somehow existed in real-time– in our world or maybe “out” of our world, I was completely hooked. My two favourite types of fantasy are historical fantasy and portal fantasy, and this is a portal fantasy (where someone from this world somehow is transported to another), of the highest order.

The name Piranesi is given to the main character by the Other. It is a nod to Giovanni Piranesi (1720 – 1778), an artist and architect, who produced a series of drawings of vast fantastical prisons, full of endless staircases and odd machinery.

Piranesi himself is an arresting character. As he wanders through the House, he does so with a sense of wonder and awe. He regards the thundering tides and the myriads of statues as Gifts of the House, and he feels blessed to have seen and experienced them. He ponders them, seeking their deeper meaning. HIs child-like wonder and appreciation of the mysterious House awakens in us the same child-like wonder and appreciation for our own “House”, this beautiful planet in which we live. From Piranesi’s journals we know that Piranesi himself is intelligent and compassionate, and yet he is also naïve and child-like in both his trust of the Other and his admiration and love for the House.

Piranesi begins with a quote from C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew:

“I am the great scholar, the magician, the adept, who is doing the experiment. Of course, I need subjects to do it on.”

While this is certainly a clue to the motivations of The Other, it was a different C.S. Lewis character that came to mind as I read Piranesi. The Other reminded me of the menacing Dr. Weston from C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy. Both of these men are scientists, obsessed with finding arcane and hidden knowledge, and more than willing to sacrifice others in the pursuit of that knowledge. And like Dr. Weston, the Other eventually turns to occultist practices to gain the knowledge he seeks.

In fact, you can find other nods to C. S. Lewis in the book. Piranesi tells us that his favourite statue is,

… the Statue of a Faun, a creature half-man and half-goat, with a head of exuberant curls… He smiles slightly and presses his forefinger to his lips. I have always felt that he meant to tell me something or perhaps to warn me of something: Quiet! he seems to say. Be careful! But what danger there could possibly be I have never known. I dreamt of him once; he was standing in a snowy forest and speaking to a female child.

The stone statues themselves bring to mind Jadis’ courtyard, filled with creatures the White Queen has turned to stone, eventually rescued by Aslan.

A Meditative Journey

Telling the story from Piranesi’s point of view was a brilliant choice by Clarke. We are given the clues at the very beginning that something is dreadfully wrong, but Piranesi himself doesn’t see the significance of these clues until much later in the book. This leaves the reader thoroughly caught up in the story. We wish we could shake Piranesi out of his trust of the Other and explain to him that there is more to the House than meets the eye.

But on the other hand, we don’t. We sense that to alert Piranesi of the dangers we can see but that are hidden from him could fundamentally alter him. We are left to follow the story in an agony of suspense, hoping Piranesi will discover the truth and yet simultaneously hoping he doesn’t.

This novel explores themes of identity, belonging, and home, and what it means to trust. It dares us to see Beauty in the ordinary, and challenges us with the question of what to do when our deepest assumptions about our lives and ourselves are proven to be wrong.

But it’s a hopeful book, too. Piranesi’s courage and acceptance of his life’s circumstances and the compassionate way he treats both others and himself are lovely examples to us.

We have all had our lives altered over these past couple of years. All of us have been challenged with circumstances beyond our control, and we have learned things about others and ourselves that can be frightening and hard to swallow.

The advice Piranesi has for us is simple but profound: The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite. 

This book takes us out of ourselves and helps us see the infinite, giving us a clue that in the labyrinth of life, there is a way to live that can keep us going forward in hope.

Piranesi is a lovely book; a meditative journey into both the good and bad aspects of human nature, and a compelling page-turner to boot. And, like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, it presents us a tantalizing glimpse of a hidden world that is just at our fingertips, if only we had eyes to see.

Another stunning achievement by Susanna Clarke. I give it five stars.