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A Book Review of "Piranesi" by Susanna Clarke

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Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke.

Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke.

Susanna Clarke's first novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, has remained one of my favourite works of fiction since it was first published in 2004. The mix of fantasy and historical fiction to be found in the tale of two magicians trying to bring real magic back to 18th century England, set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, was something that I found genuinely fascinating — and, the grand scope of the novel was very impressive. This was followed up by a collection of short stories, The Ladies of Grace Adieu & Other Stories, which was published in 2006. Her second novel, Piranesi, comes after a fourteen year absence. Fortunately, it manages to be just as interesting as her first, in its own way.

The Setting

The world that Piranesi inhabits is one very different from our own. It consists, seemingly, of a single endless mansion (the House, as Piranesi calls it — always with a capital 'H'), made up of an interconnected network of massive chambers. The House has three levels — the lowest of which is subject to constantly changing tides, while the highest can develop their own weather patterns. At times, the constant ebb and flow of the tides in the lower chambers results in floods in the mid-level chambers where Piranesi spends much of his time. But, Piranesi has lived in the House for so long that he has learned to predict both the tides and the weather — so, this is rarely a danger to him.

It's a fascinating idea. It is also one which, I have to admit, I had a very difficult time visualising as I made my way through the novel. Even after having finished the novel, I have still been able to form only a vague impression of what the House would actually look like. At the same time, though, that doesn't really count as a weakness for me. Revealed to us, as it is, through Piranesi's own obsessively detailed journal entries, the House manages to feel both wonderfully strange and genuinely magical.

The Characters

Spending much of his time alone in the House, Piranesi's only form of social interaction comes in the form of regular meetings with a man he refers to simply as the Other. Unlike Piranesi, the Other is seemingly able to come and go as he pleases — and, his scheduled visits are typically taken up by any number of strange experiments. The Other is abrupt and stand-offish, and he clearly knows more than he is willing to reveal. Throughout all of their interaction, there is a strong sense that the Other is using Piranesi in some way, and for his own goals. Although Piranesi clearly seems to place a great deal of trust in him, the reader isn't necessarily meant to feel the same way. So, when the Other reveals to Piranesi that there is another newcomer to the House, who poses a threat to both himself and Piranesi, it adds a genuine sense of uncertainty to the story.

For his part, Piranesi makes for an instantly likeable central protagonist. As we discover through his journal entries, he is intelligent and articulate, with an impressive eye for detail — yet, at the same time, he approaches the various situations he finds himself in with a sense of childlike innocence and enthusiasm. Apart from his regular meetings with the Other, his only real companions are the statues that fill many of the massive chambers, which have come to act as a form of comfort for him, and the skeletal remains of previous inhabitants, who he has come to care for. As the novel progresses, and we come to learn more about who Piranesi actually is and how he came to find himself as the sole inhabitant of this strange House, we begin to discover that he actually plays a small part in a much larger story — and, that there is a distinct element of tragedy to him. But, he never entirely loses that endearing quality.

The Takeaway

For some readers, the way in which Clarke presents the story she is telling may be a source of some frustration. Throughout much of the novel, there is a constant sense of a large narrative, with higher stakes, taking place around Piranesi — but, with the narrative being presented to us through Piranesi's own journal entries, the exact nature of that story often seems to remain slightly out of reach. It genuinely feels as though Clarke considered the plot of her story to be secondary to the themes she wished to explore through her central character. These themes, which touch on issues of isolation and the importance of forming connections with others as well as the relationship between memory and identity, are definitely interesting. That being said, it also results in a novel which never seems to be building toward any sort of climax and resolution. For my part, at least, I remained engaged by, and invested in, Piranesi as a character until the end.

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