Piranesi by Susanna Clarke – Book Review

My library hold for Piranesi by Susanna Clarke came through on the day it was announced as the winner of the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction. Very fortuitous. I, of course, dived right in but have to admit was thrown by the opening pages and the world it immediately conjured up (see the below opening sentence).

You see, Piransei does weave into fantasy territory – not a genre I usually read. However, I decided to leap on in and it was an excellent decision.

Opening sentence: When the Moon rose in the Third Northern Hall I went to the Ninth Vestibule to witness the joining of the three Tides.

Who is Piranesi?

Well, Giovanni Battista Piranesi was an Italian artist and architect, known for his work of labyrinths and prison-type scenarios. He is the person that our lead character, Piranesi, a man in his 30s, is named (or nick-named) after.

Piranesi. It is what he calls me.

Which is strange because as far as I remember it is not my name.

It is an apt reference for the world that Piranesi lives in, in what he calls, the house. It consists of over 7,000 stately halls and rooms set over three floors and adorned with beautifully carved statues depicting all kinds of life and emotions. Tides from the north, east, south and west regularly flow through the lower floor, so Piranesi’s days are punctuated by the sound of water lapping and waves crashing.

Piranesi believes he is one of 15 people to inhabit the halls – 13 of whom are dead. Only himself and The Other, a man in his 50s, are alive and they spend their days trying to find the Great and Secret Knowledge.

The enormity of this task sometimes makes me feel a little dizzy, but as a scientist and an explorer I have a duty to bear witness to the Splendours of the World.

Who is The Other?

Though Piranesi’s life seems idyllic, there are moments of ‘what does that mean’ scattered throughout, so you’re never quite sure which way the story is going to go. These mainly centre around his meetings with The Other.

His only human companion, The Other treats Piranesi like a colleague rather than friend and gives off ulterior motive vibes, with more than a little gaslighting in play. He is controlling Piranesi, but why?

Number 16…

Piranesi loves living in the house – he truly appreciates its glory and wonder, uses the tides to catch fish, is friends with the many birds that nest in the halls and observes their movement and potential messages diligently.

However, his serenity is shattered when The Other reveals there is a 16th person who has ill-intent towards them, so Piranesi must be on the look out.

16 is opposed to everything we are, everything you and I think is valuable and precious. And that includes reason. Reason is one of the things that 16 wants to tear down.

Is The Other telling the truth though? And what will become of Piranesi’s wonderful world…

Deliciously thought provoking

It was very clever how, from quite early on, I was applying theories as to what the story was telling me and what was really going on due to the layered way it was written. It conveyed several ideas and commentaries at once; Is it pure magical fantasy? Is it a religious parable? Is it a man’s descent into madness? Does it maybe have a crime spin? Or even another layer at play?

But I digress into what is surely fantasy.

Written as Piranesi’s diary entries, we seamlessly weave from the present to the past to unlock the truth about him. I fell for his earnest character and after I turned the last page, left Piranesi feeling a little bereft, heartbroken and absolutely wanting to dive back into the wonderful halled world. Such vivid imagery was conjured up that I can still picture the halls, statues and flow of the tides perfectly.

I can totally see why it won the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Piranesi a truly unique, captivating and wonderfully written story. Unlike anything I’ve ever read and a book that is definitely going on my re-read pile.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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