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Book Review: Piranesi, Susanna Clarke

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Rebekah has worked over 8 years in public libraries. She has recommended books to readers of all ages and hopes you'll enjoy her suggestion!

About the Author

Susanna Clarke was born in Nottingham in 1959 and lived in Northern England and Scotland during her childhood. As a student at St Hilda's College, Oxford, Clarke studies philosophy, politics, and economics. She then taught for two years before working as an editor at Simon and Schuster. Clarke published several short stories before her debut novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, was published in 2005.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was greeted with numerous nominations and awards, including the British Book Awards Newcomer of the Year, the Hugo Award, and the World Fantasy Award. The following year a collection of short stories titled The Ladies of Grace Adieu, was published. She currently resides in Cambridge.

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Summary

Piranesi is a Beloved Child of the House, and he remembers no other life. He knows the labyrinth better than he knows himself, its alcoves and where the albatross nests. He spends his days visiting the statues, collecting seaweed, and taking care of the House's mysterious thirteen Dead, whose names have long been lost to memory. For Piranesi, he has all that he needs. The House provides everything if one is resourceful enough to search.

His only living human companion is the Other, a mysterious man in search of the Great and Secret Knowledge. He meets with Piranesi regularly, bringing gifts that Piranesi does not understand; they are not, after all, things the House normally would provide. But Piranesi happily meets with the Other and helps him with research and understanding the Great and Secret Knowledge.

Piranesi’s world expands drastically, however, when new people appear in the House. The Other becomes frantic, warning Piranesi of the dangers these new people bring. Piranesi is curious, after all he has never seen another living person, but tries to heed the Other's warnings.

What does the appearance of the Sixteenth Person and the Prophet have to do with the Other, and why are they after Piranesi? And who is Matthew Rose Sorensen?

With its literary allusions, Piranesi will delight fans of C.S. Lewis and Plato alike. Readers of Neil Gaiman, Diane Setterfield, and Erin Morgenstern will love Piranesi's tones of dark fantasy, magical realism, and the twists and turns that accompany any labyrinthian tale.

What I Liked

Piranesi is a strange little tale, but that is to be expected from the author of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. It has all the dark, magical realism I had come to expect from her previous work. I enjoyed Piranesi's innocence, the ease at which he accepted all the unusual circumstances surrounding his life in the House. I'm normally not one to enjoy epistolary novels or novels written as if they are a journal or diary, but in the case of Piranesi, it worked very well for my taste. The story told through Piranesi's eyes was intriguing, especially when it came to the Other.

The Other is a mysterious fellow; somehow always well dressed with nice, new things. Piranesi marvels at him, and believes the House must provide many different things to the Other, because he does not have the resourcefulness that Piranesi has. I thought the way Piranesi devoted journal entries to lists of things the Other has given him to be a major part of his character and personality.

Mystery was one of the aspects I found I enjoyed here. Normally I am not a fan of mystery (I want to know everything happening as it's happening) but there was something natural about the way Piranesi told the story. Perhaps I was not as invested as I might have been in other stories? I read this book casually, entry by entry, and had no rush or desire to know the secrets just yet. I felt something sinister going on, but, like Piranesi, I did not really care about it for a while.

The pace was slow for about half the book for me, I think I read the second half of the book about twice as fast as the entire first half. The appearance of the Sixteenth Person and the Prophet intrigued me, especially once we started learning that there was indeed another world outside of the House.

Towards the end, I liked 16's character; she was an interesting addition to the small cast and I liked the friendship they developed. Piranesi's realization that he and Matthew Rose Sorenson are, essentially, the same person goes through the stages of acceptance and denial just enough without being too much. Additionally, even at the end there was an air of mystery that I found satisfying.

What I Didn't Like

Piranesi is full of quiet suspense, which at times was excruciatingly boring for me to read. There was very little intensity, even after 16 and the Prophet made an appearance. Piranesi's mild temper and almost indifferent attitude towards things happening around him irked me. The way he just goes about, without questioning anything, specifically without questioning how the Other comes by all these fabulous new things, got on my nerves. I dislike passive characters; even ones written to drive home a point about some grand theme. While I enjoy themes and criticism in literature, especially about religion, a passive, simple character as Piranesi is not the kind of character to make me really care about the point the author is trying to make.

The Other was the opposite for me; he was the stereotypical abuser-type that you are meant to dislike. I disliked him to the point where I genuinely did not like reading his dialogue or actions, and it frustrated me more that Piranesi liked him so much. Sometimes you dislike characters because they're terrible people, but great characters. To me he was a terrible character all the way around.

On the story itself, there was nothing I particularly disliked, though the pacing was difficult for me. The beginning part felt not only slow, but next to boring. Despite my dislike of the Other and my irritation and Piranesi's dullness, I could have lived on a whole book-length of nothing but Piranesi exploring the House. Readers get just enough to understand the bare minimum of what they need to know before the story skyrockets into action, at which point I was devouring the story. Furthermore, the House was too obscure. As a reader, I enjoy plot and setting-driven books much more than character-driven, so this gives me a disadvantage when I read books where the surroundings are not fully explained. This goes hand in hand with my final point.

My final dislike is a very simple thing - there were no maps! I am the kind of fantasy reader who just adores maps. I don't necessarily get disappointed when I don't have a map (I often listen to audiobooks, which don't usually have a map to look at), but this world, the House, was so intriguing to me! I wanted to study it and look at it. I wanted to see Piranesi's drawings of the halls and maybe a sketch of the Other. The book is written in journal form, and I think there was a great opportunity to make the book really detailed with artwork or handwritten notes. Piranesi describes certain parts of the House many times, but because it is written in his voice using first person, readers get very little actual description of any one part of the House. I would have loved to have seen Piranesi's journal entry where he writes about making star charts for the Other, and then a double page spread of the star chart. Depictions of his favorite statue, even. In Clarke's previous novel, Jonathan Strange, artwork of the characters and the world is interspersed throughout the narrative. I was incredibly disappointed when the same treatment was not given to Piranesi, and more so because the nature of this second novel would have been perfect for such enhancements.

Final Thoughts and Lingering Questions

All in all, Piranesi is a book I would recommend if you enjoy mystery and not knowing what's going on. I did not like it as much as I hoped, but that doesn't mean it wasn't good. One of the aspects I found most interesting was the link I saw to Aleister Crowley. I am not sure how solid this connection was intended, but for myself I thought it was a fairly obvious reference to his work in the occult.

Also, at the end, the main character referred to Piranesi and Matthew Rose Sorensen as two people - separate from the person now telling the story. I'm wondering if a third personality was born after the trauma of leaving the House and returning to the outside world. As with the early descriptions, I would have enjoyed another book-length section at the end with this new personality and his navigation of the world, as well as trying to understand the character of James Ritter, who had apparently gone through similar trauma as Sorensen and Piranesi.

There were a lot of questions that did not get answered, and normally this is a turn off for me as a reader, but somehow in Piranesi it all just seemed to work. It is a very short book of only about 260 pages and could be read in an evening if you've the time and mindset to devote to it.


Have you read Piranesi? Let me know what you thought in the comments below!

Similar and Recommended Reading

In no particular order, (favorites are linked):

Bellman and Black (2013), Diane Setterfield

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (2004), Susanna Clarke

Neverwhere (2003), Neil Gaiman

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (2018), Stuart Turton
- I would recommend reading the text version as opposed to audiobook.

The Night Circus (2011), Erin Morgenstern
- On this I highly recommend the audiobook version.

The Memory Police (1999, trans. 2019), Yoko Ogawa

Circe (2018), Madeline Miller

The Ocean at the End of the Lane (2013), Neil Gaiman

The Historian (2005), Elizabeth Kostova

The Rabbit Back Literature Society (2006, trans. 2013), Ilmari Jääskeläinen

Once Upon a River (2018), Diane Setterfield

The Secret History (1992), Donna Tartt

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