Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Susanna Clarke, Piranesi (Bloomsbury Publishing: 2021, 9781526622440)

Piranesi is a man who lives in a labyrinth-like house of apparently infinite rooms filled with statues. The lower floor has a sea and bodies of water, tides, waves, etc and the upper floors have birds and the / a sky. The house is Piranesi’s world. Initially the descriptions of the house are quite beautiful but quickly become tedious and repetitive. There’s the endless descriptions of statues and interminable numbering of halls and vestibules and western this and northern that. His only human contact is with the Other, a man he meets with every week. The Other, unlike Piranesi who is dressed in modest old clothes, is always dressed in suits and tapping away at “his shining device”. He also brings supplies to Piranesi like bowls, fishing gear and shoes. After a while, Piranesi starts to find clues that suggest he may be in danger and that the Other may not be his friend. The mystery doesn’t last very long for the reader, as the introduction of mundane objects and technology into a fantastical world more or less gives away the ‘twist’ of the novel early on.

Piranesi is devoid of ego and doesn’t have much of a personality. He has a child-like innocence and unwavering benevolence, appreciating the beauty of the house and the nourishment (fish) and company (birds) it provides. He assigns meaning to the statues and finds messages in the birds’ behaviour. He responds to his environment and believes the environment responds to him. Piranesi represents mankind before ‘Enlightenment’ or really even earlier: the primal man who is at one with nature and unencumbered by modernity and progress. I get the message and wish I could have been endeared to this character, but after a while I found that his innocence became irritating as a personality trait (or like thereof) and a narrative device of irony and humour. For any cynic souls out there who love a villain or a protagonist with dubious morals, Piranesi lacks bite.

Most of what the novel does accomplishes what it means to – the repetitive nature of descriptions creates a ‘labyrinthine’ atmosphere; the Capitalisation of Nouns when describing the House and its Nature reflects Piranesi’s Reverence for this World and the Philosophical Themes of the Novel and its Meditations on Primitivism (sorry, had to); Piranesi’s altruism is a perfect contrast to the Other’s individualism. But for me there is a dissonance between the novel’s themes and the final product.

The House

In How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps her House and Transcendent Kingdom, for example, heightened and extreme emotions are depicted but don’t feel melodramatic – the themes match the language, plot and the work as a whole. Piranesi lacks a sense of the magnificent, maybe even the uncanny, that comes along with Classicism and Philosophy. It brings to mind the more successful The Secret History, where the almost otherworldly atmospheres of classical art, academia, mythology and primitivism are achieved not only through underlying themes but also tone, plot, characters and language. In Piranesi, the ‘themes’, when isolated, are more interesting than the novel itself, or the story, and that’s a problem.

Piranesi is an okay novel. Since reading the book, I have found out that the writer’s previous work seems to have achieved some popularity and her second novel was highly anticipated, so if you haven’t read the book yet I’d say to make sure your expectations are not heightened by the hype and overall critical success it has achieved.

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