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.