Piranesi by Susanna Clarke – review

Published by Bloomsbury

Publication date – 2 September 2021

Source – review copy

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 that thunder up staircases, the clouds that move in slow procession through the upper halls. On Tuesdays and Fridays Piranesi sees his friend, the Other. At other times he brings tributes of food to the Dead. But mostly, he is alone.

Messages begin to appear, scratched out in chalk on the pavements. There is someone new in the House. But who are they and what do they want? Are they a friend or do they bring destruction and madness as the Other claims?

Lost texts must be found; secrets must be uncovered. The world that Piranesi thought he knew is becoming strange and dangerous.

Piranesi lives in the House. It is a house of hallways and a house of tides. There are statues scattered throughout and nests of birds high in its rafters. It is Piranesi’s sole domain. Except when The Other visits. But someone else has entered the hallowed walkways of the House, messages have been left in rocks and on doorways. It seems that the House is finally ready to tell Piranesi its secrets.

Susanna Clarke will already be familiar with many people, her novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell being hugely popular with many readers over the years. I haven’t read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell so I can’t compare the two. Neither would I want to. Piranesi is a world all of its own.

Piranesi is an astounding book, and I don’t use that word lightly. It is hard sometimes to remember that the world created is all the figment of the author’s imagination, so drawn in is the reader into Piranesi’s life and the hallowed halls of the House. The words wash over the reader much like the great waters flood the halls of Piranesi’s House. There is a subtleness to the story that the reader slowly becomes aware of. Even as I raced through the book, so keen was I to find out what would become of Piranesi and his home, I knew that this was a book that would benefit more than one reading. There are hidden clues, deeper meanings and more aspects to Piranesi’s world to be discovered on a further read of the book. There are references to other books for example that I know will have passed me by, though the more obvious ones did greet me as I turned the pages.

As the story progresses, the reader begins to get a clearer picture of Piranesi and the origins of his life in the House. He seems happy in his job, tracking the tides of the house, discovering vestibules and hallways and reporting back to The Other in their weekly meetings. He has skeletons, found on his forays inside the house. He makes sure they have offerings and moves them when the waters threaten to wash them away. Piranesi writes in his notebooks, using a time of his own making, which can take some getting used to. I’ll also admit there were times when the story could have got away from me. If I’m honest, I let it wash over me and picked up the pieces that had made immediate sense. Some details were lost in order for me to see the bigger picture. This is one of the reasons why I think I would benefit from reading Piranesi a second time.

Piranesi will not be for everyone. There will be some readers who won’t be able to get past the first few pages or chapters. Then there will be others who get caught up in the tides of the story, are propelled through the pages as they journey with Piranesi to discover the secrets the House has been keeping.

I often think that as a reader I get an instinctive feeling for a book, almost before I even start to read, a knowledge that I am discovering literary treasure. I got that feeling when I started to read Piranesi. Quite simply I loved it. I hope that if you decide to read it you do too.

21 Comments Add yours

  1. MarinaSofia says:

    As one of the people who could not get past the first few pages, I feel there must be something lacking in me to appreciate this. But maybe it was the wrong time to be reading it and I will try again later. Maybe, as you say, I was trying too hard to understand and make sense of things, and I should have just let it wash over me.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. janetemson says:

    There is definitely nothing lacking from not enjoying it. Even as I read it, I could tell that it would not be for everyone. I’ve been in the same position though where I’ve not been able to finish a book that others love. It does make you wonder what you are missing but then I realise it’s just one of those things. One of the wonderful things about books, every reader reads a different version of it, unique to them and instead of reading a book I’m not enjoying I’m better off reading others and discovering my own gems 🙂

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  3. I don’t think it is a “folly” to compare Piranesi to other books, worlds or to Jonathan Strange, I think it is essential to actually understanding Clarke’s ideas and her work general. Both books share many similar themes and in comparison to the masterpiece that was Jonathan Strange, Piranesi is a an underwhelming experience (“a crowd-pleaser”, if you like). Its second half especially is under-thought and random, more akin to some cheap version of a Dan Brown thriller than to a great fantasy literary fiction. I enjoyed Piranesi (I gave it four stars), but I also know Clarke’s standard and talent and Piranesi fell well below that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. janetemson says:

      Perhaps folly was the wrong word. I’ve altered it (and certainly didn’t mean to cause offence). Given I’ve not read any of her other work I can’t compare them though I know many of her fans will. Sorry to hear that you found it underwhelming in comparison, though pleased to hear you loved Jonathan Strange so much 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It wasn’t an offensive word, I was just expressing my opinion 🙂 I certainly highly recommend Jonathan Strange, especially since you loved Piranesi. It is as close to Dickens as anything written in our modern age and one of the best books I’ve ever read.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Nice review. I was surprised that I a) finished it, but even more that I b) LOVED it. This is a fantasy-type story and I usually can’t stand those, lol. But the first few minutes of the audio DID suck me in. I had to hear it all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. janetemson says:

      It didn’t even enter my head it was a fantasy story but I can see why it would be called one. I’m pleased to hear that you loved it. I imagine the audio version was very good!

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  5. heavenali says:

    This is an extraordinary sounding novel, I am trying to read all the Women’s prize winning books,so will probably read this one day. It’s definitely right outside my comfort zone though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. janetemson says:

      A few people referred to it as fantasy but it hadn’t really occurred to me that it was (I rarely read fantasy novels so can’t really comment too much). It won’t be for everyone but I do hope you like it if you read it 🙂

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  6. Although I don’t read many modern novels, I must admit to being very drawn to this, as much because of the hypnotic quality of Piranesi’s art as anything else. I’m very tempted…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. janetemson says:

      It doesn’t feel modern, if that makes sense. There’s a sense of antiquity about it, and also a timelessness. I hope you enjoy it if you read it 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I love the expansiveness of Susanna Clarke’s imagination and how certain motifs pop up in her work. There’s a particularly good Waterstones interview on YouTube that Madeline Miller did with Clarke and it touches on some of these.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. janetemson says:

      I’ll have to try and find the interview! I’ll also have to try and read Jonathan Strange at some stage.

      Like

  8. JacquiWine says:

    The more I read about this novel the more intriguing it seems. It sounds extraordinary (in a good way), and very different from Jonathan Strange. I think I’ll download a sample on my kindle at some point, just to see how I get on with it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. janetemson says:

      I think that’s a good way to try it. It’s one of those I think you either love or don’t. I hope you do love it 🙂

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  9. Lovely review Janet! This isn’t my usual sort of read but the neither was JS&MN and I really enjoyed that, so I’m really tempted to give this a try.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. janetemson says:

      It’s one I’d say is worth trying to read a sample of before going in. It’s not for everyone but hopefully you’ll love it too 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  10. BookerTalk says:

    I’ve been hesitant about this one. So many people have written about how much they enjoyed this book (as much as you did ) but I’m not entirely sure its for me. You’ve responded to other comments here that it didn’t occur to you that it was a fantasy novel which for me is a point in its favour since I tend not to enjoy reading anything which isn’t “real” . Normally I would try to get a library copy if I’m not sure of the book but this one has a very long wait list so I might just try the Kindle sample and see where it takes me

    Liked by 1 person

    1. janetemson says:

      I think trying the Kindle sample is a good idea. I also think mood very much plays a part with this book. I’ve heard of people who tried it and couldn’t get on with it and then picked it up later and loved it.

      Like

      1. BookerTalk says:

        Mood does play a key role I’m sure

        Like

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