Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi [2020] – ★★★★

Piranesi is a new fantasy novel by the author of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell [2004]. This time, we have a diary-like narrative and our narrator observes, records and catalogues a curious World around him – the House. In the House, architectural splendours meet natural wonders – sea Tides, bringing marine life and vegetation, often flood the seemingly infinite number of opulent Halls, where numerous enigmatic statues of all sizes daze and confuse. Our narrator’s only human contact is the man only known as the Other, who also often frequents the Halls and who sees the World very differently from our narrator. Then, cryptic messages start to appear in some Halls, and our narrator witnesses strange visions. What other mysteries does the House hold, and is there really a Sixteenth Person who may be residing in the Far-Distant Halls? These are the questions that start to bother our narrator as he is slowly forced to question the very nature of his existence in this bewildering World of Tides and Architectural Beauty. In Piranesi, Susanna Clarke invented one mysterious, otherworldly place whose pull is irresistible, powerful and inescapable, and whose charm works like magic, saturating the reading experience with endless wonder, delight and fascination. Amidst all the watery and architectural beauty, though, there is a want for slightly more meaning and depth, and it is unfortunate that the second part of the book falls into some very familiar and overused literary “thriller” tropes.

The book opens with passages of beauty and wonder. From the very first sentence, Susanna Clarke invites the reader to discover and explore the new World filled with mystery and dreamy vistas. There is simply no end to the uncanny beauty and fascination that the sentences evoke. When the Moon rose in the Third Northern Hall I went to the Ninth Vestibule to witness the joining of three Tides. This is something that happens only once every eight year” [Susanna Clarke, 2020: 3], begins the narrator. Through this person who carefully records his experience of the World around him, we soon learn of the Drowned Halls and Derelicts Halls, of mysterious Vestibules and Passageways “peopled” by hundreds of exotic human-like Statues, and of other wonders of the House. What is the meaning and the origin of this World, though? Many questions are left unanswered (for now), and the wait for answers is bittersweet.

Our own narrator employs a Robinson Crusoe-style narrative and documents zealously and meticulously everything he sees. With him, we marvel at the unexpected and view how the force of Tides and the shining of Stars intermingle with the beauty of Statues – all seem to be in unison and speaking their own secret language. There is a lot to take in here for both the narrator and the reader, but once we are used to all the terminology, the journey is easier. The scientific cataloguing of wonders reminds of the work of Belgian comic artists François Schuiten & Benoît Peeters, who also mix wonderfully the imaginative and the wondrous with the academic and the scientific inquiry. Also, as in Jonathan Strange, Clarke’s penchant for academic referencing, scientific documentation and meticulous recordings provide certain eerie authenticity to the seemingly impossible world she describes.

The whole World or the House in Piranesi and the situations arising may even be viewed as an allegory on human life and society, with people constantly seeking something beyond their reach and understanding. There is an allegory on the immensity of life and things in it, and how the human mind is simply not capable of grasping or even fathoming all or every knowledge or thing that may (or may not) exist. The world remains incomprehensible, and its mysteries – unreachable: “The Other believes that there is a Great and Secret Knowledge hidden somewhere in the World that will grant us enormous powers once we have discovered it” [Susanna Clarke, 2020: 8], says the narrator. Susanna Clarke plays with absurd situations in her book, trying to contrast meaningfully the themes of understanding and ignorance, and memory and forgetfulness. Spoiler Alert (highlight to read): There is probably even an attempt by Clarke to evoke the infamous “allegory of the cave” in her book – this allegory concerns Socrates who tells of a group of people chained to the wall of the cave and who face a blank wall. They believe all their lives that the shadows on the wall they see are “real life” (when these are only one type of the representation of it).

As for similarities between Jonathan Strange and Piranesi, there are common themes of the spiritual world, the pursuit of dark and mysterious knowledge, and both books also share one similar theme revolving around the inability to see the picture/life clearly for some reason – “clouded perception”. Spoiler Alert (highlight to read): The greatest similarity must also be the relationship between the two main characters in both books – there is the same “older man vs. younger man” juxtaposition, whereby the older man exercises considerable influence and dominance over the younger one. At some point, both also have this fierce friend-turned-foe relationship.

In Piranesi, the World that is the House may be infinite, plentiful, wondrous, all-knowing, but Susanna Clarke is only human and we see the limits of her imagination and even plot holes in the book. Like Morgenstern’s The Night Circus [2011], the book sometimes hinges on all the beautiful descriptions only, and in this elusive World of flooded Halls, we desperately need more substance, psychology and depth, including characters, plot and theme-wise. Perhaps the world described by Clarke necessitates a bigger and deeper book. The direction that the book takes half-way through is also questionable, with random ideas snowballing to result in something almost banal.

Piranesi is like a literary enigma which provides this endlessly mysterious journey into the unknown. No other author but Susanna Clarke can mix scientific, academic rigour with the unbelievable and the unimaginable, and then have an unputdownable book as a result. Even though Clarke’s world is bewildering and utterly absorbing, there is no escaping this feeling that, at least plot and character-wise, somewhere there in Piranesi hides a much better or rather “greater” book – some true fantasy classic that will now never see the light of day. Seeing it in this light, the book Piranesi is like a beautiful statue in one of the Halls in the World that never had (and never will have) its opportunity to come out of the muddy waters that flood the Vestibules and breathe its first “breath” of life.

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Since Piranesi is a dark fantasy with elements of mystery and thriller, I am counting my reading of it towards the Readers Imbibing Peril Reading Challenge for this year.


21 thoughts on “Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

  1. Fascinating review, Diana. This “form over content” problem seems curiously prevalent recently – the newest Morgenstern book, “The Starless Sea,” is so strongly afflicted by it that despite intriguing ideas very quickly becomes pretentious; a catalogue of the author’s obsessions more than a coherent novel. I’ll keep your review in mind if I decide to brave this new Clarke’s book.

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    1. Thank you! Exactly, it is like Clarke described this world and then did not know what to do with it – so she thought “what if this and what if that”…and it all turned out a bit disappointing, banal and far from all the “intellectual wonder” she aspired to have in the first place. This is still a positive review of the book, but I just so wished she went further.

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  2. Excellent review, Diana. 🙂 So, the world-building is fantastic but it would have been great if the author had gone even deeper. I have been planning to read it. Let’s see how much I like it. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. “Gormenghast meets Morgenstern” may be the most perfect way to describe it! (I was not familiar with Gormenghast, but I just looked it up and I think it fits almost perfectly into what Piranesi represents!). I have been under the impression that Clarke is a better and certainly more intelligent author than Morgenstern…but then recalling the second part and the ending of Piranesi – maybe not that intelligent hehe 🙂

      On a related note, I cannot wait to see all the fan art that will flow from others reading Piranesi – I think it will be just amazing. I kept thinking while reading the book that it needed some wonderful illustrations to accompany the text.

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  3. Hm, I’m sorry to hear that the plot was not up to the world-building – usually that annoys me to no end but in this case I’m hoping it will be tolerable. She does an outstanding job at the latter anyway.

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  4. Lovely and very informative review — many thanks! I must admit that I’ve been a bit hesitant to try Piranesi, despite the fact that dreamy world-building is usually right up my alley in a fantasy work. I did read Jonathan Strange and, though I enjoyed it, was not totally won over. Clarke is undoubtedly a very talented writer but especially with a work having (as you point out) so many allegoical elements, I was concerned that Piranesi’s plot and character development might suffer. I’m not terribly demanding in the way of plot, especially if the world-building is skilled, but I do demand some! Your very even handed review has given me a great idea of the book. I’ll most probably read it, but not anytime soon.

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    1. Thank you! I found allegory in there, but I thought the book was rather thin in that respect, if allegories were even intended. Maybe I did expect more symbolism and philosophical thought, and on that basis thought I spotted much more of that. The Plot and characters do suffer a bit, but my biggest concern was the slide into some Dan Brown-style thriller. Oh well – I still enjoyed the book and recommend reading it even if you were not totally won over by Clarke’s previous book.

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  5. This is the first review I’ve read of Piranesi! I’ve been worried that it would be too allegorical and abstract for me, but am reassured by what you say about ‘eerie authenticity’. It’s a shame that she doesn’t do more with the setting, though.

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    1. Thanks for reading! The “eerie authenticity” probably applies to the first half of the book 🙂

      I have this feeling that, given the idea in the book, that it should have worked much better as either a short story or a rather long 500 plus page saga on this world, but not really the format that Clarke delivered – this modest 270 page book (I wonder if there be Piranesi 2?). Somehow, it paradoxically both under- and over-thought at the same time and in different places.

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  6. All and all, would your end conclusion be “unputdownable”?

    I’m at the same time very keen to start this – Strange & Norrell was such a feast – but also a bit afraid: her short fiction hasn’t always been succesful, and from what you write this could be a bit like Rothfuss’ A slow regards of silent things – underdeveloped & too focused on esthetics.

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    1. It was an unputdownable read for me, but not a perfect one. I didn’t know that her short fiction does not always meet the mark. Now that you mention it, I think something slightly like this happens in Piranesi too and not all ideas are satisfactorily carried through to the end. Piranesi is slightly underdeveloped and focuses on this environment description, but since the overall result is still magical and compelling, I have given the book four stars.

      Now that I think about the book again, I think my main problem with that is not even underdeveloped bits or focus on the environment instead of the plot and characters, but the PARTICULAR direction that the book starts to take in the second half. I think there will be many readers of this book who will agree with me on this one.

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