Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Review by Annabel

Of all the books that were published a couple of weeks ago in this September’s post-lockdown publishing splurge, Susanna Clarke’s second novel, Piranesi, was the one I wanted to read above all others. Coming sixteen years after her debut, it would have been terrible to have been disappointed, but instead, I think I may have found my book of the year! I loved it that much.

Although there are parallels in some of the themes with her historical fantasy epic Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (revisited here for Shiny by Jane back when the television adaptation aired), Piranesi is a very different animal. It’s short for a start at just 245 pages versus JS&MN’s 800 or 1000+ in paperback! Also, as you soon come to realise, despite the museum-like grandeur of its setting, Piranesi turns out to be a contemporary novel.

What a setting though! Imagine a three-storey Italianate marble museum, perhaps infinitely larger than say the Louvre. Enclosed within the museum is an ocean: the basement storey is flooded and teeming with fish, the upper storey is often cold and full of clouds, the middle storey, which is subject to the tides of the ocean, is where Piranesi lives among the statues and birds.

Piranesi is our narrator, telling us his story through his journal entries, which are dated in his idiosyncratic style:

Entry for the first day of the fifth month in the year the albatross came to the South-Western Halls.

He has no recollection of how he came to be there or how he got his name. He enjoys his life, cataloguing the statues in the labyrinth of rooms, fishing and drying seaweed to eat. He knows his way backwards around the hundreds of halls and km of passages and stairways between them and is an expert in the ocean’s tides. He also tends the bones of the dead, the thirteen skeletons he has found in his travels. Piranesi writes with constant wonder about his world, telling us about the nature he encounters; the tides and the birds that flock in the halls but also material things such as the statues:

There are some Statues that I love more than the rest. The Woman carrying a Beehive is one.

Another – perhaps the Statue that I love above all others – stands at a Door between the Fifth and Fourth North-Western Halls. It 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 means 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.

He is not alone though. Twice weekly he has a short meeting with the man he calls ‘the Other’. The Other, who is always garbed in a smart suit, brings him occasional supplies of things such as multivitamins, in return for information which he sends Piranesi out to get for him. It is when the Other warns Piranesi that a sixteenth person will soon enter the halls, and that 16’s intent is to break their friendship and destroy their life’s work, that things begin to spiral out of control. Piranesi would like nothing more than to meet someone new, hiding as the Other would have him do will be difficult. Piranesi turns back to his earlier journals for clues, only to make fateful discoveries and be confused further as to his own identity.

Like the ocean in the halls, this novel is literally teeming with intertextual references. Self-contained worlds accessed by magical means from Clarke’s own Faerie Roads in JS&MN, to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, especially the origin story of The Magician’s Nephew, whose Uncle Andrew owes much to one of the characters here, and Piranesi’s favourite statue who could be Mr Tumnus of course. Clarke has recently talked about more labyrinths than just the one we know from Greek myth, bringing in Labyrinths, Borges’ collection of short stories, and Ursula Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan as examples that influenced her. Although she didn’t mention it, I couldn’t help but think of Mark Z. Danielewski’s sinister one In House of Leaves at times and Dr Who’s TARDIS too.

Then there is the significance of Piranesi, named for the 18thC Venetian artist who was famed for his architectural drawings of Rome and imaginary prisons (carceri), the irony being that Piranesi doesn’t see the halls as a prison, but as home. They do feel magnificent and full of the glory that was ancient Rome.

Piranesi may be a concise novel when compared with JS&MN, but there is so much to think about in its pages, it feels like a longer book (in a good way, you understand). It totally defies categorisation, there are aspects of fantasy, SF, nature writing and an historical feel to parts, even before we get to the central mystery which could be thought of as a psychological thriller, but it’s often funny too.

I loved the care with which Bloomsbury have produced the slightly wider than standard hardback, with bronze-blocked Corinthian columns on the book’s boards, and endpapers covered in seashells and sea-life.

I defy anyone reading this novel not to be sent off on flights of fancy set off by the richness found within its pages. I loved it from start to finish and it is the best book I’ve read so far this year – it’ll take a lot of beating.

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Annabel is one of the Shiny Editors. She doesn’t think she could live in Piranesi’s world, but would love to visit it.

Susanna Clarke, Piranesi (Bloomsbury, 2020). 978-1526622426, 245pp., hardback.

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  1. When I see a book described as historical fantasy, I get visions of Tolkien and Game of Thrones, and I turn away. I never did pay any attention to Susanna Clarke or ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell’. However I do trust your judgment, Annabel, and you may have convinced me to give ‘Piranesi’ a try.

    1. This one isn’t an historical fantasy – it’s far wierder than that. I think you might enjoy it.

  2. Well, it sounds and looks absolutely beautiful – I’m really tempted!

  3. I am one of the few people I know who didn’t get on with Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Nevertheless, this sounds far more appealing. The elements of nature and historical writing appeal, and it sounds delightfully odd, without being peculiar.

    1. Very different to JS&MN, definitely odd in a good way. 🙂

  4. Nearly finished this now, but you capture this so well. I think I may need to pen a couple of posts as well as the usual review to do this justice.

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