Piranesi – Susanna Clarke



A man lives in an immense House populated mainly by statues, and whose top level is full of clouds, while the bottom level is full of water. There is only one other living person - at first.


I tried Susanna Clarke’s first big success, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, but wasn’t really drawn in; the same with the filmed version of it. However, when I read reviews of Piranesi, the descriptions intrigued me. I suppose I’ve come out now somewhere in the middle.

The actuality of Piranesi didn’t quite match what I thought I recalled from the reviews – I had understood there to more traveling through a labyrinth involved, and less human contact. In fact, though, while there is a possibly endless labyrinth, most of the action takes place in a few rooms or “Halls” of it. And the narrator is in contact with another person from near the start. That said, the setup is still intriguing.

Clarke treads dangerously close to one of the oldest  and most threadbare tropes of speculative fiction, but gradually addresses it, if not head on, then obliquely and for a long period – enough that my initial concern about the story’s direction faded away. The result, for much of the book, is effective, though I found the end a little underwhelming.

Equally, I thought that Clarke had created an intriguing setting in the House, but then largely ignored it to focus on the narrator. It’s not a bad decision, but in a book this short (158 pages for me), I felt there was much more she could have done to explore the location the characters spend so much time discussing – what it is, how it works, what it’s for, why it’s shaped as it is. Much of the discussion is about where knowledge goes and how it shapes its surroundings, but the former is never really addressed.

All in all, an interesting book, and a quick, engaging read, but not one that necessarily makes me a fan of Clarke’s work. I’d be willing to try again, for the right premise, but wouldn’t automatically buy her next book.

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