Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

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

Piranesi – published by Bloomsbury, September 15th 2020

Piranesi’s house is no ordinary building: its rooms are infinite, its corridors endless, its walls are lined with thousands upon thousands of statues, each one different from all the others. Within the labyrinth of halls an ocean is imprisoned; waves thunder up staircases, rooms are flooded in an instant. But Piranesi is not afraid; he understands the tides as he understands the pattern of the labyrinth itself. He lives to explore the house.

There is one other person in the house—a man called The Other, who visits Piranesi twice a week and asks for help with research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. But as Piranesi explores, evidence emerges of another person, and a terrible truth begins to unravel, revealing a world beyond the one Piranesi has always known.

For readers of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and fans of Madeline Miller’s Circe, Piranesi introduces an astonishing new world, an infinite labyrinth, full of startling images and surreal beauty, haunted by the tides and the clouds.

From the New York Times bestselling author of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, an intoxicating, hypnotic new novel set in a dreamlike alternative reality.

Find it on Goodreads.

Verdict: Near perfect.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I loved this but talking about why I loved this is proving difficult. Normally, I do not care about spoilers at all – but this time I genuinely think not knowing too much helps with appreciating the book, as then the reader’s experience mirrors the main character’s. While the mystery at the heart of this book is not the most important part, I enjoyed being able to guess and look for clues. One of the levels this book works as is as a puzzle box and I had so much fun.

I adored Clarke’s debut Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell but I might actually prefer her second novel. The books could not be more different: the former is a sprawling, long, and dense historical novel with Austenesque wit (plus, you know, fairies), the latter is a short, vague, interior novel focused on a very small cast of characters. Written in the form of diary entries, we never leave the main character’s head – and what a wonderful head to be in it was. Piranesi is fascinating: he is kind but set in his ways, he believes the House knows best but is still able to keep looking for answers once he wants them; I do not know that I have read about a character like him often and I adored the fact that before everything, he wants to do what is right.

Pretty much all of this worked for me, from the characters to the peculiar prose to the structure; especially the first half was near perfect for me. I do admit that this just hits a lot of my pleasure buttons and I can see where it might not work for other readers but I am glad that many people are taking a chance on this.

Ultimately, on a metaphor-level I think this is a book about loneliness and about the structures we impose to deal with it. Clarke is chronically ill and you can tell she knows what she is writing about here. For me, this hit particularly hard given the slowly becoming unbearable pandamic and the intrinsic loneliness of new motherhood. I will treasure this book.

Content warnings: murder, cult-like behaviour

I am not reading the complete longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year but I will attempt to review the books I do get to. I also cannot help myself and will rank the ones I read.

  1. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
  2. Luster by Raven Leilani (review)
  3. Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

4 thoughts on “Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

  1. Lovely review, Hannah. I found myself wanting the mystery to satisfy at the same level all the rest does, which was essentially the only drawback for me; otherwise I agree entirely and also loved the read. I do hope to see this one on the shortlist!

    Liked by 1 person

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