book review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

PIRANESI by Susanna Clarke
Bloomsbury, 2020

I’ve never read Susanna Clarke’s much-acclaimed debut Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and I don’t always do well with the sort of speculative novel where the reader is thrust into an undefined circumstance and spends the majority of the book waiting for the full picture to cohere. And that is… pretty much exactly what Piranesi is, so, it’s a testament to this book’s brilliance that I loved it despite how ill-suited it is to my personal tastes. So if, like me, you read the first page of Piranesi and groaned because it read like a bunch of gibberish, I’m going to have to implore you to stick with it for a hot second and let it work its magic. (It’s short!)

The thing that quickly won me over is Susanna Clarke’s writing and how beautifully-rendered this imaginative setting is. I think it’s best to go into Piranesi knowing as little as possible, so I won’t really talk about the plot, but suffice to say it’s set in a giant House which is essentially a labyrinth of halls, each lined with hundreds of statues, and in the middle of the House is an ocean. I’m usually not one to relish in descriptive writing but this setting was just so striking, so delightfully offbeat, that I was drawn in pretty effortlessly. As others have said, this book is kind of like a puzzle, but not one that you should race through the book to solve; it’s the sort of reading experience that’s better savored. 

Without saying too much, what hit me the hardest about this book is its depiction of loneliness. It’s ostensibly a cerebral, ethereal, illusory book, but the longer I think about it, the more current and relevant it feels and its inclusion on the Women’s Prize longlist makes perfect sense to me. I’m delighted to have read it and it’s a book I know I’m going to want to return to.

20 thoughts on “book review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

  1. I’m very pleased you liked this. I thought it was brilliant and couldn’t agree more about its central theme/interest being loneliness—it’s beautifully done.

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  2. Yesss I’m so glad you loved this one! There really is so much to like about it, and I agree that it feels like an especially resonant addition to the WP this year. Really hoping to see it on the shortlist!


  3. I was curious about this because Jonathan Strange was one of my favorite novels, and one that I actually reread, which I feel like is sky-high praise since I’m not a big rereader and especially not of gigantically massive books, of which it is one. But her writing and storytelling abilities are just phenomenal. The setting of this one really does sound so striking too!

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    • I still haven’t read Jonathan Strange and I am SO on the fence about whether I’d like it?! Her writing is gorgeous so I’m on board there, but I’ve heard it’s vaguely fantastical and involves fae which is like… could be amazing or awful for me personally…?!?! And it’s so big, I’m scared!

      Anyway yes you should absolutely read Piranesi (are you dabbling in fiction again?), I’ve heard it’s quite different from Jonathan Strange but it’s SO stunning and immersive and lovely.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well, if it’s any help, there is little on this earth I would like to read about less than the FAE or even to be reminded of that word and yet I still totally loved it. I even reread it around the time I was moving towards only nonfiction and it still appealed so much then. It IS fantastical and fantasy was never my thing either but I don’t know, she just makes it work somehow! If you find yourself in the mood for an immersively distracting story I think it’s such a good option. I also remember it not feeeeeeeling like such a long book despite being one.

        I’m not dabbling in fiction again (although just put in a library hold for a book that seems more autobiographical than novel but allegedly is one and also sounds vaguely ridiculous but I remembered hearing about it from years ago so decided to finally investigate) but I still love to see what’s going on in the world of it, and you always express your thoughts about books so well that I can imagine how I’d react to it based on that 🙂

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      • That actually helps quite a bit, thank you! I own a copy and it’s been sitting on my shelves taunting me for years, so I think I will pick it up when I’m next in the mood for something immersive.

        Well as the International Booker is proving this year, sometimes that fiction/nonfiction line is incredibly blurred! The War of the Poor was just shortlisted which I really enjoyed but which… is literally nonfiction?! And books need to be fiction to be eligible. So I’m still not entirely sure what’s going on there.

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      • I’ve been noticing that blurring happening a lot lately and I am NOT happy about it. I posted a review of an essay collection recently that did that and I was soooOOOOooo bothered by it (because I loved the author’s last long-ago book) and I started reading other reviews and articles about it…there was a good bit since she’s loved but not prolific, so something new from her made everyone want to talk about it. And I guess there’s this idea that fiction and nonfiction inherently blend, and everything is actually a “story” and kind of playing up the genius of it and I just…no. I know memoir especially is hazy in this area which is of course fine, but like, don’t just blatantly say “I made up that detail” which she does! There’s an artsy/academic spin to be put on it, I suppose, but it bugged me bad.

        How weird that it’s also happening with the prizes, I hadn’t heard about that! I wonder what the reasoning behind that is.

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      • YES it bothers me too and I can’t even put my finger on why! Like… a book is a book, and if it’s a good book it shouldn’t matter if it’s truth or fiction, but I REALLY struggle with books in that grey area. Did you read The Years by Annie Ernaux? I read like, one paragraph of it before I decided that I wouldn’t be able to handle the autofiction slant.

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      • I read The Years last year and weirdly enough, I loved it! I don’t know, it definitely took me a minute to get into it, but maybe I was just able to put aside the use of tenses and perspective and assume it as memoir, just told in a more kind of experimental style? I’m not sure. Sometimes I just like reading something that mentally puts me in France so we could chalk it all up to that. But everyone said to read her other one then, I think it’s A Girl’s Story? But that one is labeled fiction everywhere and I thought it would be too heavily fictiony for me.

        I guess where we feel the line of that can vary, but I completely agree, if I feel like there’s too much grey area, and once I start noticing it I can’t stop noticing it, the book is just done for me!


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