Skip to main content

Piranesi

Review

Piranesi

There is an ocean trapped within the labyrinth of an infinite House. Piranesi does not know how he arrived here, only that he has always been the Beloved Child of the House. This is the World as he knows it, and therefore to him it is the entire World. He is almost alone, but he is not lonely. The upper halls fill with clouds and birds, and when the tide comes in, the ocean-soaked lower halls flood. Piranesi subsists on shellfish and seaweed, nourishing himself on what the House provides. He spends his days exploring the endless halls and their many Statues, except for two hours each week when he meets with the Other to discuss their great plans.

To say that Piranesi is coming to doubt the Other is not entirely true; he doesn’t know doubt. He is implicitly, wholly trusting in his innocence, in his sheer contentment. But questions do begin to emerge --- gradually and then earth-shatteringly --- in Susanna Clarke’s first novel in 16 years.

At first glance, PIRANESI is everything that Clarke’s beloved JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL is not. It’s a slim volume, spare and single-voiced, as opposed to her lengthy, character-packed debut fantasy. It feels much more experimental and overtly philosophical than the first. But this only serves to demonstrate the variety of Clarke’s deeply considerable skills. PIRANESI shares STRANGE’s wry humor, its literary acuity and its spellbinding considerations of the wildness of magic.

"PIRANESI is an exquisite, deliberately crafted puzzle-box, a nesting-doll of mystery and magic.... Elegant, haunting and profoundly satisfying in a way that I’m not even sure I fully understand yet, this is an utter masterpiece."

It’s impossible to talk about this book without spoiling its twists and details. It’s best experienced when one goes into it knowing as little as possible, though the novel and its protagonist share a name with the 18th-century engraver, and it’s worth looking up his labyrinthine works as background. It’s an enigmatic premise, and it can be hard to find a foothold for the first few portions of the novel, but trust Clarke’s expert hand. She is one of the sharpest writers of our era, and she wields fantasy as a tool, as a vehicle, as an uncannily clear mirror. PIRANESI is an exquisite, deliberately crafted puzzle-box, a nesting-doll of mystery and magic. Rapturous and clever, its truths, wonders and horrors will unfold for you like it unfolds for Piranesi himself.

Here’s the thing: It is impossible for me to imagine what this book would feel like at any other time in human history. We are six months into a pandemic, our way of life utterly changed from how it had been last year (or even, at least for me in the United States, in February), and I simply have a different relationship to what it means to be trapped inside a house. A different relationship with the concepts of escape, isolation and fantasy itself. Even humanity itself: what we are to each other, how our interactions shape our identities. But somehow, incredibly, this is...fitting. Something feels uncanny about a novel that dwells so fervently on these ideas, and one that was written prior to this year. It makes the story’s ending, as well as its entire concept, both enchanting and nearly chilling, but it’s vindicating nonetheless, in a way that I haven’t yet had to confront in any other book.

Books take at least several years to publish, and Clarke couldn’t have predicted the world into which PIRANESI would release. But shortly after the publication of STRANGE, she was diagnosed with conditions of chronic fatigue and found herself essentially isolated at home. It’s not so surprising, then, that this new book deals with the tension between isolation and community, the joy and also the danger that the presence of other people can bring. It celebrates a sense of singular belonging, of the beauty in the parts of the world that are accessible to us. In one sense of the word, Piranesi is irrevocably trapped, his world absent from the creature comforts to which we cleave. But as the novel goes on and hints of our familiar outside bleed in, PIRANESI has us question: Who is really better off? Where is the true potential for joy? For peace? What does it mean to be infinite? What does it mean to be free? And what does it mean that a story like this is timeless?

Metaphysical and metareferential, PIRANESI is a literally labyrinthine, literary fantasy that asks us why we choose to lose ourselves in fantasy. It asks what it truly means to be lonely, lost and trapped. To question the intricacies of curiosity, solitude and contentment suggests a much more complicated, interesting, haunting set of answers than one might expect. It defies genre, blending philosophy with thriller and fantasy, and in many ways it feels like a parable, both timeless and more strikingly apt for this moment than anyone could have predicted.

PIRANESI feels defiant. It’s referential, pulling from myth and reality, but its rendering makes it a unique artifact. It’s composed of puzzle pieces that seem almost familiar as you hold them, but presently come together to make a constellation of a story in four dimensions, with you gazing up at it from within. Elegant, haunting and profoundly satisfying in a way that I’m not even sure I fully understand yet, this is an utter masterpiece.

Reviewed by Maya Gittelman on September 25, 2020

Piranesi
by Susanna Clarke

  • Publication Date: September 15, 2020
  • Genres: Fantasy, Fiction
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
  • ISBN-10: 163557563X
  • ISBN-13: 9781635575637