Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi by Suzanna Clarke; Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020.

I always feel a little bit guilty when I fall in love with the first book by a relatively new author because I know that I’ll inevitably wait for their next work with anticipation and think of it in terms of the first book. “Ah, yes,” I’ll say, “She wrote Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell! I can’t wait to read this next book.” And of course, everybody else who wants to read Piranesi is excited because they loved Susanna Clarke’s first work, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. The dust jacket is eager to remind you that she wrote Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. So, I am glad to say that—aside from the quality of writing and the whimsical nature of some of the fantasy—Piranesi is not all that much akin to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. It is short (at little under 250 pages and with a sizeable typeface I was able to read it in two days), it features a minimal cast (there are pretty much two main characters that make appearances), and the plot is pretty straightforward.

Despite its brevity, the story does take some time to get started. The narrator lives in a mysterious house of endless passages, each one filled with detailed statues and with waters that move from room to room according to their own scheduled tides. They know only one other figure, whom they call the Other, who also appears in the house and performs rituals to find some kind of power or magic. The Other calls the protagonist Piranesi, though the protagonist doesn’t recognize the name (this amnesia is central to the plot). The start of the book is mostly the protagonist describing their life, their love of the house, the statues they most enjoy, and the occasional meeting with the Other. It is not until roughly fifty pages that a sudden revelation sets the plot in motion—instead of merely observing the halls of the house, the narrator is suddenly attempting to unravel a mystery.

I won’t spoil the story, but the reader’s reaction to this book will rest on whether or not they enjoy the narrator and whether or not they were expecting a complex and intricate mystery to unfold. Truth be told, the little mysteries of the book—where is this house? what is the past of the narrator? where does the Other come from?—are pretty straightforward once you understand what’s going on. What complicates the matter is that the narrator is so childlike and reverent towards the house: they are happy to live their life counting the rooms, fishing, and occasionally caring for the few skeletal remains that they have found with reverence and care. They believe that the house is a caretaker that watches over them and provides for their needs. In their innocence, they often fail to understand the motives of other characters or the implication of certain events. There are plenty of moments throughout the book where the reader can grasp the situation, or uncover an insight, well before the narrator understands what is going on. This sets up plenty of dramatic irony and tension, but it can be frustrating to keep reading from the perspective of a character who cannot put the pieces together. Sometimes the innocence is charming; other times, it risks becoming tedious.

The ending of the book provided enough revelation and character development to feel like the story was worthwhile. It adds a somber, heartfelt touch, which gives purpose to the narrator’s naivety. Nonetheless, while there are plenty of beautiful passages and descriptions, it can get a little wearisome wandering the same house with only Piranesi (although they do not call themselves that) for company. I’m not sure if the book wants the reader to open up to Piranesi’s point of view, to let things be, to retain a sense of wonder with the simple gifts of the world. It is a pleasant notion, in its way. But for all their charm, I simply would not want to live the way Piranesi (though they do not call themselves that) does, trusting that the world is always watching me and caring for me as though I were its child. That said, the writing is lovely, and the story does not wear out its welcome. Perhaps I will read Piranesi again someday, should I need to imagine a place away from the rest of the world, full of detailed and mysterious statues. 

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