Review: Piranesi

Piranesi (Bloomsbury) is a mind-bending, absorbing book, more slender than Susanna Clarke’s previous work of fantasy, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, but equally dazzling. Clarke’s narrative choices and the classical flavours in Piranesi leave it feeling somehow entrenched in reality despite its magic.

The protagonist, Piranesi, narrates the story through his meticulous journal entries. He is an inhabitant of an immense, labyrinthine building he calls the House, with infinite halls and tidal seas that wash across the rooms. The walls are lined with statues, each unique, with its own character and symbolic meaning for Piranesi – including two kings playing chess and a faun that he “once dreamt was standing in a snowy forest and speaking to a female child” (in one of many nods to C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series throughout the book). 

“The beauty of the House is immeasurable, its kindness infinite.” This is one of the proclamations Piranesi makes revealing his devotion to – and dependence on – the House. He performs odd rituals in the House like making offerings of food to human remains that sit in piles around the place. It is through these peculiar acts that he reveals his core kindness and selflessness, all while being admirably content with his life in the House. There is a purity to Piranesi that makes us back him without question, mistrustful of anyone he comes across.

Beneath his contentment though, there is eerie mystery. There is one other inhabitant of the House, “the Other,” who visits Piranesi twice a week to discuss research into “A Great and Secret Knowledge” that he seeks. The Other seems to have given Piranesi this name, making us doubt what we know about our protagonist: who he is, how he arrived at the House and why his memory of these questions fails him. While his recollection of “the real world” is lacking, he has an impressive and rare ability to navigate the halls of the House where other visitors get lost. The layers of truth shrouded in Piranesi’s limited knowledge of a world beyond the House begin to peel away in an unsettling, addictive way as the book edges on. To divulge some of these turns in the story would be unfair to any prospective readers of the book.

Piranesi is incredibly visual and engaging. Readers hoping for a hefty Narnian exploration of worlds opened up may be disappointed in how Clarke keeps the story reigned in to Piranesi’s solitary experience of the House and its effects. But this light touch is what makes Clarke’s newest work such a refreshing read. Back with her unique storytelling, here Clarke enjoys taking different genre choices, delighting in her imagination of Myth and Labyrinth. In Piranesi, Clarke plays with ideas that invoke the expansive “many-worlds theory” while treating her focal story with great attention to detail. What results is an imaginative, puzzling treat that you’ll finish in a matter of days.

By Rory McNeill.