Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

November 11th, 2020

Piranesi (not his actual name) thinks of himself as the “Beloved Child of the House” where he lives: a house that is, as far as he can see, the entire world (163). It’s a strange world: Piranesi can walk from one gigantic room to another for miles upon miles and still only have traversed a small fraction of the space; the lower floors of the House are flooded, and the sound of the tides against the walls and staircases is a constant; aside from Piranesi and a man he calls “the Other,” the House is populated only by fish and birds and statues. But for Piranesi, it’s home: he gathers seaweed for snacks and for fuel; he catches fish for his meals; he records the tides and catalogs the statues and also helps the Other with his pet project: as Piranesi explains early in the book, “The Other believes that there is a Great and Secret Knowledge hidden somewhere in the World” and he thinks that if they can only somehow find and unlock it, they’ll have “enormous powers” (8). Piranesi isn’t particularly interested in those theoretical powers, though, and it becomes clear pretty early on that there is more going on than the Other is telling Piranesi. The book, which unfolds as a series of entries from Piranesi’s journal, is the story of Piranesi’s days and also the story of the knowledge that he uncovers, quite separate from what the Other is trying to find.

I was pretty sure from the start that I was going to like this book a whole lot, and I was correct. I love that we’re reading Piranesi’s journal, and the way that things start slow and pick up in intensity as Piranesi learns new things about himself and the Other really works for me. And the writing is lush. I love passages like this:

It was the very depths of Winter. Snow was piled on the Steps of the Staircases. Every Statue in the Vestibules wore a cloak or hat or shroud of snow. Every Statue with an outstretched Arm (of which there are many) held an icicle like a dangling sword or else a fine line of icicles hung from the Arm as if it were sprouting feathers. (26)

Or this:

A lattice of wire was strung across the courtyard. Paper lanterns were hanging from the wires, spheres of vivid orange that blew and trembled in the snow and the thin wind; the sea-grey clouds raced across the sky and the orange lanterns shivered against them. (245)

There are so many lovely images and phrases throughout the book: “a Staircase that had become one vast bed of mussels”, or “a Wall ablaze with so much golden Light that the Statues appeared to be dissolving into it”, or someone who “wanted to go to university to study Death, Stars and Mathematics” (55, 56, 114).

2 Responses to “Piranesi by Susanna Clarke”

  1. Jenny @ Reading the End Says:

    Yayyyy, I loved this too! It was so, so different from Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, but wonderful in its own very particular way. I’m thrilled Susanna Clarke is writing again.

  2. Heather Says:

    Yes! So different and so good!

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