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.