Piranesi: Susanna Clarke

Published by Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020, 272 pages.

“When the Moon rose in the Third Northern Hall I went to the Ninth Vestibule to witness the joining of the three Tides. This is something that happens once every eight years.”

This is how the book begins. The narrator lives in a vast labyrinth of halls filled with statues. There is an ocean in the basement and clouds on the top floor. The narrator knows the statues and the halls intimately—he has travelled to the “the Nine-Hundred-and-Sixtieth Hall to the West”—and can tell exactly when the tides come in. He lives on seaweed and the fish that he catches in the ocean. There is nothing, as far as he is concerned, outside the House. There is no “outside”: the House is the world. “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite”, he writes in his journal.

He is not entirely alone: there are the birds who visit, and the bones of 13 people who have died there. He finds the bones, cares for them and gives them names: the Fish-Leather Man, the Folded-Up Child. He does not know how they died or who they were.

But there is another live human, a man he calls The Other, whom he sees twice a week. The Other calls him Piranesi, although Piranesi knows it’s not his real name. He cannot remember what his name is and he doesn’t really care. He’s happy in the House. “The World feels Complete and Whole. And I, its Child, fit into it seamlessly.” He even has his own way of marking the years: instead of numbers, he names each year by a significant event, for example, the Year the Albatross Came to the South-Western Halls.

You are thrown into this world that doesn’t seem to have any connection with the familiar. Yes, the halls and statues are things we might have seen, but the world itself—the House—does not seem to be part of our reality. Then Susanna Clarke throws a casual lifeline to the reader: the Other asks Piranesi about Batter-Sea[1] (as Piranesi understands it). The reference to something that is quite clearly from our world hints at another layer to this story.

But a third person seems to have got into the House. Piranesi starts to find messages from someone who is clearly not the Other. When he informs The Other of these messages, the Other gets very agitated and tells Piranesi this person, whom Piranesi calls No. 16, wants to drive Piranesi insane and he must not, under any condition, read this person’s notes. However, Piranesi sees enough of one of the notes to be intrigued. He looks for clues in his old journals, some of which trigger faint recollections of something just beyond his memory. What is the secret of the House and how did Piranesi get there?

This is one of the few times I’ve started a book and have had no idea where I was, whether this world was in some way real or imaginary, and where the story was going. The use of capitalized words gives it an 18th century feel. There are a few things that seem incongruous: the Other’s “shining Device”, the fact that he is always impeccably dressed while Piranesi’s clothes are tattered, and the clothes, shoes, vitamins and other things that the Other brings Piranesi. Where does he get these things from? Is there, then, a place beyond the House?

What I enjoyed about the book was the way the author reveals the truth—the reference to “Batter-Sea” that Piranesi takes for a nonsense word, journals full of things that make no sense to him but do to us—until the fog clears. The book also raises questions about what reality means and the degree to which it is important—or not.

The name Piranesi refers to the Italian archaeologist, architect and artist who lived in 18th century. Piranesi is famous for his series of drawings called Carceri d’invenzione (Imaginary Prisons), which depicted large subterranean vaults with stairs, chains and machines. They have a dark, haunting, almost hypnotic quality. The book echoes these drawings: nothing else seems to exist beyond, and there seems to be no way out.

The book is a delight. I loved Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and was expecting something similar, but this is unlike anything I’ve read before. Suspend your disbelief and step into the House.

Buy from Bookshop.org UK / Bookshop.org USA

[1] Battersea is a district in London.

5 thoughts on “Piranesi: Susanna Clarke

  1. Sophie

    Hi Suroor

    This novel and your review reminds me of a very good novel I enjoyed reading some time ago, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton.
    It is a difficult and demanding plot to follow, because the reader is constantly off balance, but it is nonetheless extremely rewarding.
    Anyway, I had promised myself I would NOT buy any more books until next summer, but this time I’ll make an exception!

    1. suroor alikhan

      I read The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle and loved it. I hate to do this to you, but do you know Turton has just published his second book, The Devil and the Dark Water. I’m waiting to receive my copy. I loved Piranesi. Hope you enjoy it too!

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