Recent Reading: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

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

The Ninth Vestibule is remarkable for the three great Staircases it contains. Its walls are lined with marble statues, hundreds and hundreds of them, Tier upon Tier, rising into the distant heights.

Well, that was different. In a good way.

Different from what? Well, from everything!

To start with, Piranesi is very different from Susanna Clarke’s other novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. That one, I listened to in audio format for practically an entire summer. It’s a real doorstopper. I’m pretty sure I’ll never read it again, or listen to it again, or whatever. This is true even though the language is beautiful. The story itself moves very, very slowly — which I can like, but audio slowed it down to a crawl, so slow it was really too slow for me. Until the ending, where everything crashed together at breakneck speed, which I enjoyed a lot.

Actually, in a way, Piranesi is a bit the same, in that it moves slowly for a long time and then comes together with a whoosh. But the whole thing isn’t even 300 pages, Amazon says. It’s basically a long novella. Epistolary, by the way: this is all journal entries.

Plus Piranesi opens with a baffling mystery — who is this person called Piranesi, where is this place, who is The Other, what is going on? The reader will understand certain things long before the protagonist, most particularly: The Other Is Not Your Friend. The only real critique I have is that wow, does it take a LOT of bricks being dropped on his head before the narrator catches on to this truly essential and extremely obvious fact. There are reasons he is perhaps less able to grasp the concept of “enemy” than you or I might be.

I’m having trouble calling him Piranesi, as that isn’t really his name, just what The Other calls him. Why is perhaps something of a mystery to the reader, though more of a mystery to the narrator. Almost everything is a mystery to the reader, and the narrator doesn’t even know there is a mystery about any of those things until quite a long way into the story.

So, yes, very different reading experience. Here’s another reason Piranesi is so different from JS&MN (and from nearly all other fantasy novels):

One zillion characters in JS&MN; just a very tiny number of characters in Piranesi. The protagonist is alone a huge amount of the time. This, oddly, is something I enjoy in fantasy novels. I liked this aspect of Merrie Haskell’s Castle Behind Thorns, and — departing from fantasy — Andy Weir’s The Martian. I liked it here too. I admire an author who pulls this off. In some ways a crowd scene is very difficult, but in other ways it’s definitely tricky to carry a whole novel with just one character on stage nearly all the time. I could add this to tropes I enjoy but have never used — writing a whole novel with essentially just one character. Actually, that would click right into the prison escape trope, which in fact is sorta-kinda the situation we have in Piranasi, in a sense. (A very limited sense.)

Of the other characters that we actually meet … hmm. I think there are three? No, four that I remember. A couple of them only appear once; another appears a couple of times; the remaining secondary character is the antagonist, a most unpleasant person, whom we see in snippets. But basically, this is a story with just one character, plus the setting.

I knew going in that the setting was a world that was really an enormous building. Things I didn’t know:

–The House is actually infinite, or as good as. Nothing exists outside the House except for the sky.

–There are statues everywhere, which contain meaning, maybe. Probably.

–The lower levels of the House contain a multitude of oceans.

–Birds are everywhere.

So, obviously, this is a setting-centered story. I enjoyed it very much. The narrator is also just a nice person. It would be interesting, perhaps, to come up with a top ten list of fantasy novels whose main characters are genuinely nice. This could easily be on that list. Despite the centrality of the setting, the unraveling of the mystery is also compelling. I whooshed through this story in record time.

I didn’t read any reviews until after I finished the book, and I think many reviews express the setting in oddly limited terms. A mansion! What a word to use when the House is infinite in scope! No, the House IS the world, and I’m pretty sure I’m right that the lower levels contain a lot more than one ocean. Hence the confluence of the Tides.

Anyway, that’s fine, but it’s not the most important thing about the House. The idea here, the metaphysical idea that underlies the story, is that, if you let it, the world can speak to you, and does. You and the world can be in a conversation. Here we have Piranesi, who has forgotten his past, and he really is in conversation with the House, which speaks to him through the statues and the birds.

This review offers this critique: “Once Piranesi starts looking into his past, the journey to the solution occasionally seems to be on rails, with new discoveries arriving reliably regardless of what Piranesi does, or whether he does anything at all.” But what else can you expect? The House is arranging for Piranesi to make those discoveries … or I think that could be plausibly argued.

Basic summation: This is quite a lovely story.

Right at the beginning, in the first journal entry we read, just as we join the story, the narrator writes, “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.”

The single most important thing to know about the narrator, and about the story, is that this is also the last thing he writes, at the conclusion of the story. The narrator remains the Beloved Child of the House even after he remembers something of the past and understands how he came to the House in the first place.

I think that one detail sums up the story better than any review. Everything about the story would feel very different if Susanna Clarke had ended with literally any other line.

I know some of you have read this book. What did you think?

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9 thoughts on “Recent Reading: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke”

  1. I enjoyed it greatly. I was one of probably several who recommended it to you. It seemed like a book you would really appreciate, and I’m glad that turned out to be true.

    This book might also qualify for your post about fantasy worlds that aren’t ordinary planets.

  2. A friend gave it to me and I thought it might not be for me, but I liked it and perhaps I’ll love it on a second reading. I was very afraid it might turn out to be postapocalyptic (global warming has flooded the British Museum or something) but thank God it wasn’t. A sort of magical realism, rather! Hands down one of the strangest books I’ve ever read. But I agree that the protagonist was just a nice person. (The Goblin Emperor should be on that list, too!)

  3. What I forgot to say: it gets less strange as it draws to a (sort of) conclusion, not more strange, which is rather a pity.

  4. I almost did not read this because I had found Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell to be such a trudging read, but I did, and I’m so glad I did because it is one of my top reads of the year so far. And I’m pretty sure it’s the sort of book that really rewards re-reads, due to there being so many layers to it, things that are easy to miss the first time around and only make more sense after you know what’s going on. I loved the idea that the world (or World) can be either a place of beauty or of terror simply depending on your attitude toward it, and that lovely, hope-filled ending. Such a beautiful book.

  5. I agree, Irina, I’d have been perfectly happy without any connection to our world. But I did like the way it worked out.

    And I agree, Maia was another protagonist I had in mind for a list like that.

    Louise, one problem with ebooks is that if you don’t bookmark something, it can be very hard to find again. I want to go back through and look at the early message from the birds, about obscure communication and whatever else, now that I know how the story unfolds from there.

  6. I loved it, much to my surprise! I kept being worried that the narrator’s innocence would be his downfall, and it would be yet another book about the horribleness of people and the meaninglessness of the universe, but it was the opposite! I loved that he ended up being right all along, despite also being completely naive and mistaken. That line killed me when it came back at the end! Speaking of narrators and different kinds of narration, this is certainly a prime example of what can be done if you’re really, really talented!

  7. I like how the story goes on.

    Nice long epilogue of pulling life together after the events.

  8. Thank you for this blog post.
    I have this book on audio, but it’s slow at the start and hard to get into so I’ve found it easy to focus on other stories.
    Had the same problem with JS&MN, frankly.
    I admire her writing tremendously, but even so I’m feeling like Samuel Johnson in regards to Milton: “Paradise Lost is a book that, once put down, is very hard to pick up again.”
    It wasn’t until I saw the televised version of JS that I was able to go back and listen to the whole of the audiobook. Maybe they’ll film P and I’ll be able to get into it that way.
    I do feel encouraged to try, having read your post.

  9. I hope you wind up liking Piranesi, Evelyn. Just knowing it’s short may help — at least, that’s one reason I started it.

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