TLDR: Piranesi is a man who lives in the House. It is a vast and secretive place that doesn’t fit neatly into any understandable world, populated by statues of women and kings and monsters, inundated by ocean flooding and frequented by birds. But what is it? To Piranesi, the protagonist and person who tells this story, it is just the House. As a reader, you obviously want to know more, but the magic of this story is the otherness of this place, and the slowly unfurling explanations as the book progresses will make you content in your confusion early on. It is immediately clear that despite the determined cheerfulness of the protagonist, there is a sinister underlay here, to the House, to Piranesi himself; as much as we might enjoy the story itself for its atmosphere, we, like Piranesi, cannot help bur searching deeper for mysteries he uncovers, and these are all satisfied well by the end.
Book: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
Synopsis: Piranesi lives in the House. Perhaps he always has. In his notebooks, day after day, he makes a clear and careful record of its wonders: the labyrinth of halls, the thousands upon thousands of statues, the tides which thunder up staircases, the clouds which move in slow procession through the upper halls. Lost texts must be found; secrets must be uncovered. The world that Piranesi thought he knew is becoming strange and dangerous. The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.
(Reading time: 2 mins)
Now this is a book! I knew very little about this book going into it (that synopsis really gives you…nothing), and so I was a little apprehensive, but having read it, I think this is the best way to go into the story.
This book was shortlisted for the Hugo Best Novel as well as the Women’s Fiction Prize, and I can see why. It’s not totally sci-fi, for anyone who’s not a fan, but the otherworldliness of it is a big part of the story. There is consistently something off in the book, very much replicating gothic ‘uncanny’ vibes, and thus the fantasy element is crucial to the plot and characters.
So who are the characters? The protagonist of this story is slightly unnamed. He is given the moniker ‘Piranesi’ by the Other, who is, as his name suggests, the only other person in the House. (Piranesi was the real name of a real person, but I suggest doing all your googling after reading the book!)
The story is all from Piranesi’s POV, written through a series of diary entries as he records his days in the House. From the very beginning, his character voice is intense, and that’s a large part of the reason I enjoyed this book so much. Piranesi, it is clear, doesn’t have all his memories, doesn’t entirely understand how he has ended up in this strange House, and wants to find out the answers to the world using Reason and Logic. Even when Piranesi himself falters, his voice is very clear. The author knows who she is writing, and the certainty that comes across in this makes it a comfortable read, of sorts — you can trust the author.
(Sidenote: Piranesi’s writing style is a very 18th-century Random capitalisation kind of thing, which I honestly found Oddly charming).
Atmospheric is a good way to describe this book. The scenery of the House is described beautifully, and even with all of the dangers, there is something tranquil about it. It’s very Narnia: a magical wonderland with sinister depths. However, the enjoyment you gain from this story is that it is never rushed. At no point did I feel that story or character elements had to be sacrificed to make the plot go a certain way. Instead, the slower tone, the method of retrospective diary entries and even the hints the author drops one by one throughout, all contribute towards an inevitable ending that takes its time in coming. I found that I enjoyed the ending just as much as I did the journey of this book, which I think can be rare in something that is so much about the story. I’d be curious to see what other people thought of it, but for me, the ending was consistent with the story.
I was worried I’d reach the end and wonder if the story had a point, but its breathtakingly written, and incredibly consistent in its portrayal of feeling. And in fact that regularity of tone means that even where there might be seismic shifts in our understanding, there’s nothing really shocking about plot events, because by the time we get to the climax of the story, it’s as though we’ve known what was coming all along. For me, it’s what makes the story so enjoyable.
It’s a balancing act of something emotional and rational, exactly like the Reason and Logic that Piranesi is so obsessed with maintaining, and it works very well.
I do feel like I’ve said almost nothing about this book, but I do really think it will be most enjoyable without looking into it too much! Have no expectations, and I hope it will delight you. Empty praises or not, I’m giving this book a glowing review anyway!
Similar to: The Binding by Bridget Collins. Although it is a different setting and tone of voice, something about the obscurity of the magic in the story, the slightly sinister tone of it and the way things do remain somewhat unclear all remind me of this book.
What to read next? The author is also the writer of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which I recall was a blogger fave when it came out. Clearly I’ve made a great oversight in not having read that already, but I’ll add it to my reading list immediately!