Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
Women’s Prize Longlist 2021 Progress: 3/16
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