Book Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi – Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020)

Whoa. This book absolutely blew me away. It was engaging, charming, creepy, and entirely readable. It pulled me into its world so thoroughly, every page feeling like it revealed secrets so that I felt drawn into the strange and wonderful world that Susanna Clarke has created here. Initially, I had no plans to read Piranesi. I didn’t particularly love her previous novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and every review of Piranesi left me feeling vague and a little confused, although curious. When Piranesi was awarded the most recent Women’s Fiction Prize however, I decided to give in and immediately placed the book on hold at the library.

It may be inevitable that I am now going to write my own vague and somewhat confusing review. Piranesi is a strange book and it really is one that a reader will do best to know very little about it before you begin. It is narrated in a journal form by a man sometimes called Piranesi. This is not his real name but he knows no other for himself. Piranesi lives in the House, a series of never-ending Halls, a sort of labyrinth full of statues, where the tide comes in and out. He knows no other world outside of the House and he spends his days exploring the Halls and caring for his surroundings to the best of his abilities. The House provides what he needs and he has created his own sort of mythology around the statues and the things he has found in the House. Sometimes he is visited by The Other. As far as Piranesi knows, the Other is the only other person in existence, the one who has given him the name of Piranesi. The Other is in search of a mysterious Knowledge and though Piranesi himself doesn’t think this search is necessary, he cares for the Other and helps him as best he can.

There are discrepancies though and Piranesi begins to question this search for Knowledge and what the Other might know. There is evidence too of another person in the House and as Piranesi begins to search into his own past and memories, his knowledge and understanding of the entire World changes.

There is so much I would love to say about this book. That description is really only around the first third of the novel and there is so much revealed and delved into, so much that we learn and that Clarke so skillfully shows us. But I also really want each of you to read this book and experience the same delight and surprise and sense of unfolding mystery that I did.

One mention that I didn’t see in other reviews was how heavily influenced this book clearly was by C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew. From setting to certain character names to particular scenes, there are strong references to Lewis’ book. The Magician’s Nephew is the book in the Chronicles of Narnia that depicts the creation of Narnia and, as a child, I always found it to be the creepiest in the series. Having re-read it recently with my own children, I was struck by how beautiful and sad it is and those emotions are also evoked here in Piranesi, in the world Clarke creates where beauty and tragedy walk hand-in-hand. Again, I don’t want to give away too many of those connections but it was very enjoyable to spot the Narnian references as I read.

While I won’t be going back to re-read Jonathan Strange, I will not hesitate to read whatever Clarke writes next and I can’t recommend Piranesi highly enough.

18 thoughts on “Book Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke”

  1. I’m curious about the Narnia links! I agree, The Magician’s Nephew is the creepiest of those books – when I first started trying to read them I was about five or six (and reading by myself rather than with a parent), and I got so upset when Polly disappeared that my mum gently suggested that I put it aside for a while and then start again with The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Having read your review I’m now much keener to get to this!

    1. Oh, Lou, that’s such a cute story that your mom had to help you set a book aside! I’m not sure if I’ve ever been that afraid of a book, though I do know that as an adult I read the YA novel Only Ever Yours and it upset me for weeks.

      Something about the description of this book, Karissa, reminds me of House of Leaves. Did you read that when it came out and made a big splash? It was an experimental novel that somehow broke into the mainstream publishing world.

    2. I’ve never read House of Leaves. The first I ever heard of it, a co-worker of mine was reading it and he told me it messed with his mind and really freaked him out. This was a guy with a much higher tolerance for scary stories and mind-bending fiction than me so I’ve always determined to leave the story alone since then! I could see where some similarities exist to Piranesi though.

    3. The scary thing is that it seems like something is going to get you because you can hear noises, but you never see anything. Then it’s kind of like that movie Inception (to be fair, the book came out first) where you have a story in a story in a story. The most upper level story purports that everything in the book is true…according to a character who says he found the House of Leaves book, which reminds me a bit of the book-end storytelling in Frankenstein.

    4. That actually sounds like something I could handle. I’m pretty good at not letting my mind get carried away with books and movies that play with reality like that. Gore and violence bothers me more because it gets me thinking about the real life possibilities.

    5. There is a quote from The Magician’s Nephew at the beginning of the book so it perhaps should have been less surprising to me but I never saw it mentioned in any reviews.

      The hall of statues in Charn always creeped me out. And, thinking about it now, Diggory and Polly seem the most unprotected of the children who enter Narnia. They have no Narnian allies until later in the novel, the adults around them in our world are ineffectual, not present, or actually trying to harm them. It is sweet that your mother tried to protect you from it. I always recommend that readers start with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe rather than The Magician’s Nephew because it seems like a gentler introduction.

  2. You have me intrigued! I had decided not to bother with this because I also didn’t get along with Jonathan Strange, but you make it sound wonderfully creepy and I really want to know more now…

    1. I’d be so curious about what you think of this one. I can’t quite decide if you would like it or not but I think you should read it. And don’t let Jonathan Strange put you off because I think they’re actually quite different.

  3. I think I need to follow the Women’s Fiction Prize list closer, because it seems like I’m missing out on some really great reads like this one! I hadn’t even heard of it, but it sounds really intriguing. Also, I’ve never read The Magician’s Nephew!

    1. I never used to follow either but then I started following a couple of bloggers who do and became more interested. It’s generally quite a good list.

      Have you read any of the anaemia books? I wouldn’t recommend reading The Magician’s Nephew as a stand-alone or even necessarily starting there. Aren’t you the one who never read Anne of Green Gables either? What were you reading as a kid???

    2. haha yes that was me – never read Anne of Green Gables! I went through a long phase of not reading too much as a kid and teen, then got back into it once I was done school. So I’ve got lots of catching up to do!!!

    3. I’m always fascinated when people tell me they came to reading later in life…what was it that made the switch for you? Was there one book that ignited the fire?

  4. Like you, I didn’t really feel a pull toward this book – partly because I didn’t know what it was about. But the fact that you loved it so much is making me think twice. It’s also interesting that you compare it to The Nephew’s Magician…

    1. There is a quote at the very beginning from The Magician’s Nephew so I’m sure all the allusions are intentional but I never saw it mentioned in other reviews that I read. It’s a hard book to describe and it’s a good one to go into fairly blind but if you’re at all intrigued, I recommend it.

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