Piranesi is the most recent novel by Susanna Clarke, best known for her truly massive book, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Normally I wouldn’t put this much emphasis on an author’s past work, but Norrell might be the largest book I have ever read both in page count and in density. While Norrell is a titanic piece of literature that is more reminiscent of a historical reference novel than a fantasy story, Piranesi is a wonderfully quick read clocking in at less than 300 pages. And yet, despite their large difference in size and composition, there are noticeable similarities between the two books. Such as the fact that both novels are profound and beautifully introspective works of fiction.
Piranesi is a quiet book. It tells the story of… well… a man with no name, no identity really. This man wanders an endless labyrinth with thousands of halls, each filled with endless statues depicting all manner of people. There is one other person in the labyrinth, a man looking for the ultimate truth, and he calls our protagonist Piranesi as an inside joke that he keeps to himself. Thus, while Piranesi is not our protagonist’s name, it is how I will refer to them for the rest of the review.
The labyrinth is a strange and tranquil place. It is like a giant island sitting in the middle of the ocean. Each day certain parts of the maze are flooded by the tides – but Piranesi is an expert on the ways of the labyrinth and is always sure to move around before he drowns. Piranesi spends his days exploring new parts of the maze, which he calls “the house,” and marvels at its beauty. As the story progresses you begin to find out that the house has strange and magical powers. It slowly strips selective memories of those who live there and drives them insane, yet Piranesi has somehow been here quite a long time, seemingly untouched by this effect. As you make your way into the book you begin to learn Piranesi’s past and what is really happening in the house.
Although the prose and narrative style of Piranesi is distinctly different from that of Norrell, it is quite easy to tell they were written by the same author. Piranesi’s prose consists of short, poignant, and vivid passages that talk about the character’s observations and thoughts about the world around him. It has the feel of a historian chronicling the greatest discovery of their lifetime. There is this overwhelming reverence that just leaks out of the pages as Piranesi talks about the house, and the story slowly shows you why this reverence is correct and pulls you into the maze’s corridors. It is a winding and surreal book that leaves you feeling strange and unable to sleep thanks to the questions it begs you to ask..
I don’t want to tell you too much more about Piranesi because it is best to go in as blind as possible. This book is less of a story and more of an experience – one that I recommend everyone pick up and try for themselves. The words of this tale flow like poetry and take you through a magical maze filled with wonder, introducing you to one of the purest individuals you will ever read about. Piranesi is certainly one of the most unique books that I have read this year, and I enjoyed it immensely.
Rating: Piranesi – 8.5/10