Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Susanna Clarke Raises the Impossible World
The fantasy genre has, over the last few decades, seen the establishment of numerous conventions and cliches, to the point where many works by different authors can easily blend in with each other. This, in my opinion, is rather counterproductive in regards to the purpose of the genre: to give authors a platform to venture where none others have before, just as Susanna Clarke did with Piranesi.
The story opens with a fairly slow rhythm, introducing us to our narrator, a young man who calls himself Piranesi, though it definitely isn’t his real name. He lives in a place only known as the House, but it’s unlike any dwelling before or after it.
Stretching into a vast and seemingly endless expanse of winding corridors, hallways and staircases decorated with majestic marble statues. Piranesi’s life is a rather simple one: he ventures down the corridors, tries to plot the tides which periodically wash through the house, keeps a journal of his discoveries and emotions, all while feeding himself on seaweed soup.
Every two weeks for one hour Piranesi existence is disturbed by his meetings with a man in a tie and a suit he only refers to as the Other. This man compels Piranesi to help him with his mysterious research, warning our protagonist he might go mad if he refuses. Piranesi can’t help but wonder if the Other is the mad one.
The relatively peaceful existence comes to an end one day when the Other warns Piranesi of there being an intruder in the House, one posing a mortal danger to him. What’s more, this intruder leaves messages for the young boy, pushing him to wonder further about who the real source of danger in the House really is.
The Unforgettable House of Piranesi
As you might have gathered from the brief description of the plot, Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi is about as far as can be from your average run-of-the-mill dark fantasy story. It took me to a world which I felt was refreshingly unique and original; while I’ve run into many ideas in literature which I’ve seen used time and time again, this is one of the few I can safely say I’m seeing for the first time.
Setting the obvious main characters aside for the time being, I think it’s important to establish the fact the House itself is also part of the cast, with its sentience constantly being put into question, at least by me.
We don’t get much information about the world outside the House, and as a matter of fact, by the end of the book not all of the mysteries see a neat resolution, which I personally think is a positive factor. When you have such a profound, unique and otherworldly setting on your hands, explaining too much can only strip away the wondrous feeling it elicits.
Clarke’s prose is exceptional throughout the entire book, and while not all descriptive passages share the same eloquence, they are all very purposefully and precisely written to convey specific ideas or emotions. I always found myself entranced by the parts dedicated to describing the House’s interior and the mysterious ways in which it functions.
The further I got into the story and the more I learned about it, the more I came to see the House as a living being in its own right, one whose world I didn’t want to stop exploring, especially when the end of the story finally came. In many subtle ways it mirrors our own reality, and stumbling into those little nods is a great pleasure in and of itself.
A Collision of Worldviews
Moving on from the House itself, we still have three characters who all lead the show in their own ways, creating more than a few captivating mysteries for us to untangle. While this novel certainly is unusual in its premise and setting, rest assured it does have an actual plot and mystery, although it does take a little bit of time to get to it.
Once the Intruder finds his way into the story it feels like the pace picks up a fair bit, with a sense of imminent danger pushing Piranesi to act and think more efficiently. This danger is also vastly amplified by the nature of the setting, the endless House whose nature we can only observe rather than understand.
There are some legitimately good twists and turns along the way, and trying to unravel the mystery on my own as I was reading proved to be one of the more engaging literary challenges I’ve faced in recent memory. This is one of those books where we’re given plenty enough clues to work with before the final revelation, so as the readers we do have a chance to untangle it ourselves.
At the same time, while following Piranesi’s journey we are also taking a sort of trip through time as we witness the difference in human consciousness and worldviews between ancient and modern times. We’re never given an outright historical lecture on how people used to think then versus now, with Susanna Clarke preferring to let her prose do the work in a more subtle manner.
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Many of the objects and concepts in the book, such as the marble statues, the power of symbols, and ancient worship, offer fascinating windows into the distant past. With a bit of brainwork from us, the readers, we can see a rather interesting timeline for the evolution of human consciousness, only begging the question of where we’ll end up a few more millennia down the line.
The Final Verdict
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke is without a doubt one of the more unique and engaging novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading recently, and certainly gives me hope the fantasy genre might one day experience a true renaissance.
If you’re looking for a completely original, dark, and in its own way, humorous piece of fantasy with a challenging mystery in a unique setting, then Piranesi is definitely a novel you should check out.
Susanna Clarke is an English author whose debut novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, won the Hugo Award. A couple of years later she also published a collection of short stories, titled The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories.
In September 2020 she published her second novel, Piranesi, which quickly became a renowned bestseller for its unique story.