Book Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Genre: Fantasy, Mystery
Publishing Info: 2020 by Bloomsbury
Pages: 245

Publisher’s Summary:

Piranesi lives in the House. Perhaps he always has.

In his notebooks, day after day, he makes a clear and careful record of its wonders: the labyrinth of halls, the thousands upon thousands of statues, the tides that thunder up staircases, the clouds that move in slow procession through the upper halls.

On Tuesdays and Fridays Piranesi sees his friend, the Other. At other times he brings tributes of foods and waterlilies to the Dead. But mostly, he is alone.

Messages begin to appear, scratched out in chalk on the pavements. There is someone new in the House. But who are they and what do they want? Are they a friend or do they bring destruction and madness as the Other claims?

Lost texts must be found; secrets must be uncovered. The world that Piranesi thought he knew is becoming strange and dangerous.

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

*Warning: This book review contains minor spoilers*

With a mystery as beautiful and pleasing to unravel as much as its labyrinthine setting, Piranesi is very well written by Susanna Clarke and could be interpreted in many different ways. In my view, this may well be one of the best books of 2020.

My thanks for this review go to my Dad, who provided me with this book as a present on my 25th birthday and who I know reads my blog posts regularly.

The mystery at the heart of this novel is incredibly intriguing. Who is the titular Piranesi and how did he end up in the House, a place that seems to be both familiar yet alien to readers? For the first half of the book at least, the writing kept me gripped as further questions were posed by the author alongside clues to the main narrative. It is refreshing having this kind of a mystery to solve within the pages of the book, as it draws the reader in and becomes one of those that is very difficult to put down, assisted by the short format of the chapters that each provide their own puzzle piece to the bigger picture. It must be admitted that, once provided with enough of the clues, I made a confident guess several chapters before the reveal, which was ultimately proved correct. This takes nothing away from the author’s plotting though. There is something very satisfying about going on a journey with a book, starting with none of the answers of who the protagonist is and where they are and ending up seeing clearly. Piranesi does not reveal all of its secrets though, which is an accomplishment on the part of the author, as it keeps the book shrouded in a thin veil of mystery well after its completion; the best kind of mystery in my view.

What will stay with me for a long time to come will be the image of the House. It goes without saying that the aesthetics of this unknown realm are beautiful, aided by the protagonist’s pure descriptions. A labyrinth of white walls, ceiling and floors, occupied by some flora and fauna, a handful of skeletal remains, and thousands of statues that seem to be taken directly from classical and ancient civilizations. There is something incredibly magnificent yet soothing when mental images of this setting are brought forward. Susanna Clarke takes it another step further by being aware of the spatial and temporal nature of such a place, which arguably is even more beautiful. There are three levels of the House, with the first floor forever submerged in water, the second floor mostly dry but at risk from the great tidal power within the House, and the top floor contains many clouds that float within its space, which provides a delightful scene towards the start of the book, when Piranesi looks out of a window and into one on the top floor. Arguably, the House is the defining factor of this book and is what will be remembered long after the reader closes the back page.

While writing this review, I found it very difficult to pigeonhole the book into a certain genre. There are fantastical elements, but it is also grounded in a sense of reality. There is a thriller-esque narrative to it, but the pacing feels all too slow for this genre. I believe, therefore, that the way you view the House and what it represents decides how you would classify this book. This is the aspect alluded to earlier in this review, when it was stated that the readers don’t get answers to all of the questions posed. My own interpretation of the House in Piranesi is that it alludes to a fresh start of the Earth, a clean slate (hence the overwhelming whiteness) where nature has taken control from humanity. Going by the protagonist’s reactions to everyday individuals in our world, and their realization that they have seen this type of person in one of the classical statues in the House, the statues are not classical at all, but rather a representation of humanity in all of its guises. This gives the destructive capabilities of the tides within the House, and the way emphasis is put by Piranesi when species are seen there for the first time, a more metaphorical connotation, one that I believe is rooted in nature and philosophy over religion. That being said, the author allows the reader to freely interpret the House and thus the narrative itself, which is testament to the strength of the writing.

Much like the white-walled labyrinth it is set in, Piranesi is a beautifully crafted mystery, whose effectiveness depends on how the reader interprets the narrative and setting. Regardless of this, Piranesi will be remembered as one of the best books in 2020, and is definitely recommended to anyone who enjoys a fantastical mystery.

Star Rating: 5/5

Thank you for reading my review of Piranesi. If you liked reading this, please do like and subscribe to the blog to get notified when new posts are published. I appreciate every single follower, so thank you very much. If you have any recommendations on books you think I will enjoy in the future, please leave a comment below; your comments do shape future content on this blog.

3 comments

  1. A fine review, especially when you suggest the novel may allude to “a fresh start of the Earth, a clean slate where nature has taken control from humanity” (which is very likely what Clarke intended us to consider as an explanation).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much for the comment and the kind words. The beauty of the book is that it could be perceived as alluding to many different things; the message about nature taking back control was one that stood out to me when everything was considered.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m relatively sparing in the choice of books I want to reread, but this is one I shall definitely want to come back to. Still, it won’t be immediately as I want to process the several thoughts and emotions and images that are milling around in my head.

        Liked by 1 person

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