into the labyrinth

Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Women’s Prize Longlist 2021 Progress: 3/16

Piranesi

In this novel, a man called Piranesi (though this is not his name) lives in a labyrinthine House that consists entirely of elaborate classical Halls that are filled with Statues and washed by the Sea. For Piranesi, this is the entire World. He keeps an extensive Journal, recording both scientific observations and any notable occurrences or day to day thoughts. Through these entries, we learn about his movements through the Halls and his immense Knowledge of them, as well as the Events that begin to unravel his understanding of this World and his place in it.

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

This is a difficult book to talk about, because despite everything I’d like to say, the less you know going in the better. And yet, how do you know if you want to go in unless you have some idea of what the book’s about?

There is a fantasy/sci-fi aspect to Piranesi, which probably narrows the field of readership a bit, but I’d argue that the otherworldly details are more of an intriguing background that won’t necessarily make or break the experience, while the deeper theme of coping with trauma and the driving forces of logic and mystery will more likely be the determining factors for reader appreciation.

At it’s core, Piranesi is a puzzle of a novel; it is a book for those who love inventive (though still very accessible!) structuring and clues. A great fan of mysteries and puzzles myself, I wholeheartedly loved the slow unveiling of subtle hints. Everything we learn about this World opens a door to further questions, many of which are answered through Piranesi’s observations and exchanges with the Other in ways that Piranesi himself does not seem to grasp. The Other is the only other living Person that Piranesi typically interacts with in the House. For a time, the Other and various features of the House itself are the only things Piranesi comes into contact with to provide context of what he is like outside of his own Head.

Because we are learning about our MC through his Journal, it is a very internal story in some ways; luckily Piranesi shares dialogue, movements, and entire thought processes- he places great weight on data, logic, and records. But the reader can learn as much about Piranesi’s circumstances by looking beneath the surface of the stated to note what is and isn’t important to him in these recordings: aided by his tendency to capitalize every significant noun, and his avoidance of certain seemingly obvious questions (if Piranesi meets with the Other twice a week in one specific Room, knows the Other doesn’t venture further into the House, and never sees him in the central Rooms outside of that appointed meeting hour, where does the Other go?).

The downside to this narrative approach is that it is immediately clear that Piranesi’s World is not our world; there is an imbalance of knowledge between character and reader. Thus, certain revelations about Piranesi’s past and present circumstances come as monumental shocks to him when the curious reader has already been able to guess the truth, somewhat lessening the impact of big reveals after all the careful clue-dropping has worked it’s magic. However, the gradual realization that Piranesi’s ignorance is in large part a coping mechanism makes it easy to forgive the novel for occasionally making clear the same point twice. Piranesi’s thoughts, actions, and narrative style are so directly linked and speak so well toward the ways in which a person might react to trauma that it’s hard to ignore the brilliance at work here even when things feel a little too spelled out.

But I’m brushing up against spoiler territory and don’t want to get too close, so let’s turn away from the mystery now and look toward the fantasy/sci-fi element: Piranesi’s World. I want to call it fantasy, because that’s generally what you do with an entire world that is an unending House throughout which Tides and Statues are abundant. It’s an extraordinary place. Beautiful, but also brutal, in a potentially deadly way that makes one respect it all the more. Some of the Halls are derelict, some Tides violent, and classical architecture is not much protection against the elements of the Seasons.

“There is a thing that I know but always forget: Winter is hard. The cold goes on and on and it is only with difficulty and effort that a person keeps himself warm. Every year, as Winter approaches, I congratulate myself on having a plentiful supply of dry seaweed to use as fuel, but as the days, weeks and months stretch out I become less certain that I have sufficient. I wear as many of the clothes as I can cram onto my body. Every Friday I take stock of my fuel and I calculate how much I can permit Myself each day in order to make it last until Spring.”

But this World and… how it works, for want of a better phrase… functions scientifically and logically within the novel, so calling it sci-fi or speculative is just as valid a choice. Classification is up to the reader, really. Whatever you want to call it, this World is lovingly rendered and evocative in such a way that it makes Piranesi a delight to read even when the themes turn dark or the mystery feels too obvious. If you’re looking for escapism, what better than a labyrinth built right on the sea?

If it hasn’t been clear, the only thing that would have improved this read for me further would’ve been a bit more surprise in watching the mystery unfold, but timing with solving the mystery will probably vary reader to reader and in any case there is enough else here to appreciate in depth and detail to make this novel worth recommending. I suspect it will be a polarizing read, but I hope more readers will take a chance on it. I think this is the sort of fantasy/sci-fi that could appeal to readers who don’t normally reach for those genres, because the science isn’t too technical and this world does not involve any supernatural creatures or spells. It’s ambiguous enough that the otherworldly element could be explained away by an alternative explanation, if one really doesn’t like magic as an answer. The mystery is layered and intelligent, but the gaps in Piranesi’s knowledge make it a fair choice even for readers who won’t want to do the heavy lifting of sifting through his clues before Piranesi understands what has happened. You can engage as much or as little as you like- the House has something to offer for all.

CWs: kidnapping, imprisonment, gaslighting, gun violence, death.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. A very strong 4- I loved reading this. Unfortunately it’s too early to say whether I would predict or want this book to advance to the Women’s Prize shortlist, but barring the possibility that there might end up being 6 other longlisters I’m even more attached to, I can safely say I wouldn’t be disappointed to see this one stay in the running!

The Literary Elephant

24 thoughts on “into the labyrinth”

  1. Ooh this sounds fascinating! Jonathan Strange is one of my favorite novels, I think one of the few (especially big ones!) I’ve reread. I saw she had a new book coming out and was curious what it was about. Excellent review, I got such a great sense of it from your take on it!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much! It’s certainly a unique and interesting book, and definitely leaves me curious to check out Clarke’s previous work. High praise indeed, that Jonathan Strange is one of your favorites! I’m keen to find out what (if anything) the two might have in common- I appreciate when an author shows great range, but I do hope at least to find more of Piranesi’s sense of wonder, at least. πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, have you not read it yet? I absolutely loved it and actually have read it more than once which is pretty much the highest praise I can give any book! Even back when I was starting to tend towards only reading nonfiction I read that one again, it’s just so good and one of those worlds you love getting lost in πŸ™‚ excited to hear what you think of it, especially in comparison to this one!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I haven’t read it yet, but it really sounds like I should! I’m definitely keen after Piranesi, and very excited to hear that it’s one of the few fiction books you’ve reread (especially as it looks a bit long)!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I’m so pleased if I’ve helped entice you, I definitely think there are aspects here that you could like. I’d love to see your take on it, and I hope you’ll enjoy the read if/when you do give it a go! πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Yay, I’ll look forward to seeing your thoughts! Gathering ideas from the clues in the first 100 pages or so was my favorite part of the read, even if it did put me one step ahead as the mystery played out. I hope you’ll enjoy piecing it together and seeing the rest of the story unfold! πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Naty, I think you could really like this one! I hope you’ll enjoy the read, and I’ll definitely be curious to see your thoughts on it!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This was a five star read for me because of the House which I found fascinating and wonderful. I read primarily sci-fi and fantasy but think this is an excellent book for those not familiar with the genres. I do agree that the reader was ahead of Piranesi and thus the reveals and ending in particular didn’t work as well as it could have. The First Mate didn’t love it as much as the author’s other book. But the House captivated me and I really want it to be the real place it felt like when I was reading. Arrr!
    x The Captain

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I agree! It sounds like we had very similar experiences with this book (and I do think your review was one of the posts that initially landed Piranesi on my TBR!); I’m glad you loved it so much. I also was very swept up in the details of the House and wished it were a place I could go or at least see in pictures. It was the danger of it alongside the beauty that really drew me in- the derelict Halls, the floods, collapsed ceilings. That it wasn’t a *perfect* place really made it feel realistic, and perhaps more of an ideal. And I’m intrigued to hear that the First Mate liked Clarke’s other book even more- I’m excited to read it but Piranesi will be a hard act to follow!

      Like

  3. This book sounds like a love child of Pan’s Labyrinth and House of Leaves in the best way possible. I still don’t “get” House of Leaves, but I remember enjoying every little scene that came along. Piranesi sounds more plot driven than House of Leaves, though both are commercially popular — which makes me happy!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have not watched/read either Pan’s Labyrinth or House of Leaves, but know enough about them to agree that that’s a good comparison, though Piranesi doesn’t really have a creepy element. It can be tense and painful but never frightening. And you’re right about the commercial appeal, which I also like! House of Leaves sounds like a perfect fit for my reading taste; I’m long overdue in picking that one up. This *must* be the year.

      Like

      1. House of Leaves came out many years ago, and it’s still one of those books to which people compare commercially successful fiction. No matter how people feel about it, that book did something in the publishing industry.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m so torn over this one. I didn’t love Clarke’s previous work but I’m so intrigued by everything I’ve read about this book and your review might be tipping me toward picking it up.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wouldn’t say Piranesi was quite a favorite either but I did find it very clever and enjoyable, and it looks much shorter than Jonathan Strange, if that helps! Unfortunately I haven’t read her previous book yet so I can’t speak to how closely they compare in style or content.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The length of this one appeals to me because one of the things I remember disliking about Jonathan Strange was that it had many interesting parts but just went on and on!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. In that case I hope you will give Piranesi a try! It’s not super plotty but it does read fast and feel short, and the core concept is definitely interesting.

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s