The start of Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi may well confuse you. (It confused me!) It is set somewhere unlike anywhere else. Once you accept that you can move onto a powerful story.
Piranesi was first published in 2020 and is just now out in paperback giving it a fresh lease of life. It’s Clarke’s second full length story following her incredibly successful debut novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Like that book, Piranesi supposes the existence of magic in our world and runs with that notion.
The book is set in a world constructed of infinite rooms (the House), each different, with statues, columns, seas and birds. Dangerous tides thunder around the world, flooding rooms and causing risk to life. Our protagonist, Piranesi, survives here with knowledge gained from a long residence. He appears to be happy with his simple existence, fish diet and conversations with statues and bones of previous residents. He has no memory of life other than in this labyrinth.
He’s not quite alone. The Other visits to take notes of Piranesi’s observations. We quickly suspect that he doesn’t occupy the infinite world due to his frequent disappearances. He’s less simple than Piranesi, and has more of our world about him.
The story begins with enjoyable observations of the rules and sights of the House. We get the time to let the settings sink in and savour the world before us. We learn of Piranesi’s devotion to the House and his rituals to be carried out. Clarke carefully constructs a bizarre environment with a careful caretaker and then slowly threatens to dismantle it all.
A Rare Skill
It’s a testament to the quality of Clarke’s writing that such an alien setting doesn’t put you off from the beginning. The ability to persuade a reader to buy-in to an such an extremely unrelatable world is a rare skill. This is particularly difficult when your main character has such innocence and very little memory of their history on which to draw empathy. And yet, within a few pages, we’re drawn in to such an unfamiliar construct because of the utter mystery.
It’s difficult to review and not provide any spoilers, but I’ll try. As the book progresses, we learn that there is a link between the House and our reality. The Other‘s behaviour confirms that early on. What follows is a tale of greed, exploitation, and a careful dance around issues of mental health.
Prize for Fiction
The book isn’t particularly long – just 250 pages. It just works, though, with an exciting, dangerous ending being ultimately very satisfying. It stays with you long after reading. I’ve always felt that a good measure of the quality of an creative work is how long after you’ve experienced it does it stay with you. The idea of endless halls, sweeping tides, and our wandering hero will inhabit a part of your brain for a long time to come.
Piranesi was the winner of the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction for Susanna Clarke. It’s published by Bloomsbury publishing and is out now in paperback.