March 08, 2021

Piranesi

by Susanna Clarke
Reviewed by Annabel Gaskell at AnnaBookBel

Bloomsbury Publishing (Sept 2020)
ISBN: 978-1526622426

about ANNABEL…

Hailing from the South London/Surrey borders, I’ve now been blogging for over twelve years, and still find it the most rewarding way of sharing my love of books. Contemporary literature, including translated novels, is the majority of my reading these days, but I read plenty of non-fiction and genre books too; SF was my first love back in my teens. Blogging has led me to be the proud co-founder of book review website Shiny New Books too, which couldn’t have happened without the support of the blogging and publishing worlds. The book blogging community is second to none and I’ve made so many lovely friends over the years through it, long may it continue.

Piranesi is both short and contemporary, but it is equally playful, touching and erudite, a truly uncategorisable novel in which every word counts!”

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Although there are some thematic parallels with her historical fantasy epic Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke’s much anticipated second novel, Piranesi, is a very different beast. At just 245 pages, it is quarter the length of her debut, and may be classified as a contemporary novel, despite the setting.

What a setting though! Imagine an infinitely large, Italianate, marble museum with an ocean enclosed inside: the basement is flooded and teeming with fish, the upper level is cold and full of clouds, the middle storey, subject to the ocean tides, is where Piranesi lives among the statues and birds.

Piranesi talks to us through journal entries, dated in an idiosyncratic style: “Entry for the first day of the fifth month in the year the albatross came to the South-Western Halls.” He has no recollection of how he arrived or got his name. He enjoys his life, cataloguing statues in the labyrinth of halls and stairways, fishing and drying seaweed to eat. He knows his environment backwards and is expert in the ocean’s tides. Piranesi writes with constant wonder about his world, both natural and material.

He is not entirely alone, regularly meeting ‘the Other’, a smartly garbed man who brings essential supplies in return for information. When the Other warns Piranesi a sixteenth person will arrive who intends to destroy their friendship and life’s work, things soon spiral out of control.

Like the ocean, Piranesi literally teems with intertextual references. Key are self-contained worlds accessed by magical means, from Clarke’s own Faerie Roads in JS&MN, to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, especially the origin story of The Magician’s Nephew. Clarke cites Borges’ Labyrinths and Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan as examples that influenced her in addition to that of Greek myth. Piranesi is named for the 18thC Venetian artist famed for his architectural drawings of Rome and imaginary prisons, the irony being that Clarke’s Piranesi sees the halls as home.

Piranesi may be concise but there is much to think about in its pages. It defies categorisation, containing aspects of history, fantasy, SF and nature writing before we arrive at the central mystery, which is a psychological thriller, but it’s often funny too. I defy anyone not to be sent off on flights of fancy set off by the richness of the writing found inside its beautifully designed covers. I loved it from start to finish and months after reading, I’m thinking about Piranesi still.