Piranesi by Susanna Clarke [A Review]

I had been meaning for quite a while to read Piranesi, the 2021 winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction. But it remained forgotten on the shelf for the majority of 2022 as other books stole my attention and enthusiasm. As December rolled around and I realised that I was several books short of my yearly reading goal, I began to scan the bookshelves for short reads to finish up the reading year. And there was Piranesi waiting for me to remember its existence; a mere 272 pages that I could breeze through in the final remaining weeks of the year.

Book Cover of Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

I was so pleasantly surprised when Piranesi ended up being the best book that I have read this year and one that I would heartily recommend to others. Clarke’s novel has been described as both fantasy and magic realism, both genres that I am typically not drawn to – I haven’t read a fantasy novel in years and the only magic realism novel I have read in recent times is Robbie Arnott’s wonderful Flames – but Piranesi was absorbing from the first chapter and I couldn’t wait to keep returning to this strange and enchanting world that Clarke creates.

Written as journal entries, Piranesi, a young man, describes his ‘World’ to the reader, which consists of a vast labyrinthine House of halls, vestibules, passages, and stairways all filled with statues. Each statue is unique and serve as landmarks to guide Piranesi through the immense House, something akin to companions. Within the House there are waters and tides in the Lower Halls that yield fish and seaweed that form the basis of Piranesi’s nourishment. Essentially, Piranesi characterises the House as a benevolent entity that cares for him as its Child; and no one knows the House better than Piranesi who remembers the details of the thousands of Halls that he has visited.

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

Piranesi’s existence is a solitary one; his only living companion is the secretive Other, an older man and scientist who Piranesi assists in the search for the Great and Secret Knowledge. Within the House there are also the human remains of thirteen others who Piranesi visits and brings offerings. Piranesi’s contentment with his life in the House is soon shattered when the Other claims that Piranesi is losing his memory due to the influence of the House. Piranesi questions the Other’s claim and is determined to prove him wrong by looking back on his past journals to see if he has lost memories that he has previously recorded. Piranesi’s meeting with an elderly Prophet, his discovery of journal entries that he does not remember writing, and the Other’s warning about another person in the House who wishes to do him harm, the mysterious and dangerous ‘16’, bring mystery elements to the story as Piranesi begins to question his past and his sanity.

The Other was right after all. I had forgotten many things! Worse still, at the very point at which the Other has declared he will kill me if I become mad, I have discovered that I am mad already!

Here is what I love about this novel. Firstly, the setting. I found myself regularly pausing to try to picture this extraordinary House and its multitude of statues with birds nesting on them and the tides regularly flowing in and out. The titular character is an allusion to Italian artist and architect, Giovanni Batista Piranesi, who created a series called The Imaginary Prisons. Looking at some of these works, it is clear how Clarke has drawn inspiration, but also added her own fantasy elements to this alternative world of the House. There are also allusions to other works, such as C.S Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as Piranesi describes his favourite statue in the House, the Statue of the Faun, reminiscent of Mr Tumnus who Lucy encounters when she enters Narnia through the wardrobe. There are also clear references to the Greek mythology with the maze-like House having a hall filled with Minotaur statues. Clarke’s intricate descriptions of the House emphasise the uniqueness and magic of this world that Piranesi inhabits and allows the reader to suspend their disbelief, immerse themselves and appreciate the beauty of this world.

Another element that keeps the reader intrigued are the mystery elements that Clarke incorporates into this narrative. Through Piranesi’s journal entries, we learn about disgraced academic, Laurence Arne-Sayles and his loyal followers, and their search for other worlds; this history is connected to Piranesi and the key to his identity. Lastly, the character of Piranesi is captivating, and I was drawn into his perception of the House. He maintains a sense of awe and gratitude towards the House; it is in no way a prison to him but a place of immense beauty that provides for all his needs. Despite his sparse existence, he has no desire to leave his beloved House.

It is my belief that the House itself loves and blesses equally everything that it has created.

This quick read has now become a firm favourite and will sit alongside my other most-loved novels. I tend to avoid re-reading novels, but I can see myself happily reading Piranesi again and rediscovering is magic and wonder.

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