"One I am fully glad to have waited for." Piranesi book review by Melisande Aquilina
‘… that is what it is like being with other people… even people you like and admire immensely can make you see the world in ways you would rather not.’
Genre: Gothic Fantasy, Magic Realism
The first thing the reader notices when he starts reading Piranesi (2020) is that it is written in the form of a diary. Piranesi’s diary. The second thing one notices (apart from the strange aquatic world the narrator lives in), is that the dates of the diary are strangely named, disjointed, and therefore unreliable. One quickly comes to the conclusion, even after the first few pages, that the narrator’s world is not to be taken at face value, much like the narrator himself.
The main character, who describes himself as a pale slim man in his thirties, lives in a House (with a capital ‘H’) which he considers ‘the World’. The house is immeasurably vast, full of Halls and Vestibules which Piranesi must navigate amidst the churning of the Tides, whose ebb and flow govern his life. Perhaps the most important thing about the House is that it is half-submerged in water, in fact, we learn from Piranesi’s diary, a whole section of the interminable House is fully submerged. Nothing exists outside of it except the sun and moon and stars that can be seen through the halls’ high windows. The ‘Lower Halls’ are at the level where the narrator fishes for his food, where he forages for kelp and seaweed to make ropes and ‘seaweed leather’, and is the abode of aquatic life-forms such as fish, muscles and floating vegetation. The Upper reaches of the House, the ‘Upper Halls’, are the abode of clouds and mists, of harsh winds and sudden rainfall. Piranesi lives in the ‘Middle Halls’ with the birds and the statues, the dead, and the Other.
Because the House is not as desolate and empty as it might seem. Thousands upon thousands of statues of all shapes and sizes populate it. Crouching on plinths, they stand sentinel over every doorway, every archway, every room. Some of the statues have serene expressions, others are in fighting positions, struggling and fighting in twos and threes, still others are cracked or damaged, while others sometimes mysteriously disappear. Piranesi’s life revolves around the statues and the birds, his diary and his exploration of the labyrinth that is the House.
And one other. The Other – described by the narrator as a learned, fastidious man in his 60s, whom he meets punctually twice a week for an hour at a time. Piranesi considers both himself and the Other as learned scholars and scientists, and treats the Other as a colleague and as his only other human friend. Indeed apart from the skeletons of dead humans Piranesi finds in niches around the House, he can only count three living humans in the World, that is, the House. Himself, the Other, and the Sixteenth.
This book is not an easy one to review. One risks giving away too many secrets, too many mysteries. In fact, one can say that the novel is one big mystery, and the reader strives to learn the truth of Piranesi and his world, much as Piranesi strives to explore the House and its magical changeable nature.
I also enjoyed the Easter Eggs interspersed throughout the novel, alluding and referring to other fairytale-like worlds such as C.S Lewis’ Narnia and Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, not to mention echoes of Shirley Jackson’s sinister atmospheric spaces.
If you are looking for a fast-paced book of action, this is not the book for you.
Piranesi is a slow delightful meditation on the humdrum of everyday life. A gradual, almost lethargic study of perspective. A creeping, deliberate investigation into the surreal labyrinths of the mind.
If you have read and enjoyed Patrick Rothfuss’ The Slow Regard of Silent Things (2014), you will definitely enjoy Clarke’s stylistic exposition. The narration is like a dream you are slowly, unwillingly, waking up from. As the story unfolds, the reader cannot help but try to put the pieces together, perhaps even better than the unreliable narrator himself, whose strange religious reverence to the House and childlike trust in what he sees, hinders his reasoning. Clarke’s vivid descriptions of the way Piranesi sees the microcosm that is the House are lovely, and fully lead the reader to comprehend the awe-struck love the narrator feels for it.
I first encountered Susanna Clarke’s unique narrative voice around a decade ago, reading her Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (2004) and then watching the BBC seven-part TV adaptation in 2015, and falling in love with both. Some time later, I discovered Clarke had also published a slim volume of short stories (The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, 2006), which I also gobbled up. And then nothing. I waited and waited. And finally, two years ago, Piranesi (2020) was finally published. Was the long wait worth it?
Strangely evocative of that imagination and wonder one enjoys during childhood, Piranesi is a short book which sucked me right in. It is a page-turner, heady, strange, mesmerizing. One I was not able to put down until I had solved the mystery lurking beneath its restless waters.
A huge part of the enjoyment of Piranesi is attained through the puzzle which the narrator and the reader are unravelling together while navigating the World. The sense of discovery is key, and finally solving the riddle is a delight. One I am fully glad to have waited for.