Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi is beautiful, spellbinding, mesmerising. But…


Piranesi is a masterclass in many things – building a world so beautiful and engrossing that it seeps into your soul; serving up a delightful mystery; drip-feeding information, revealing the truth gradually, like a stalagmite being formed on the floor of a cave over thousands of years; making you write sentences where you question if you’ve used a semi-colon correctly.

And yet…

Piranesi has left me in two minds. Which, if you’ve read the book, you’ll know is somewhat thematically on point.

It is a truly wonderful book – so why is my awe of it tinged with a hint of disappointment?

Where Piranesi excels

Piranesi is a beautiful book. It’s set in the House, a never-ending world of vast halls, mighty and enigmatic statues, thundering tides, and delightful mystery.

We experience this world through the journal entries of Piranesi, who has an eye for detail and a love of the House (and of capitalisation). Very quickly it is established, and therefore I don’t consider this a spoiler, that this is not a world entirely disconnected from the reality of our own, as Piranesi’s journals allude to certain items and even a couple of brand names from the world we know.

But as to what the House is, or where it is, or why it is, we don’t yet know.

The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindess infinite.

Piranesi, Susanna Clarke

It’s the world building that makes Piranesi such an incredible story. This is more than just a book; it’s an experience. You want to visit its breath-takingly beautiful world, a world that will live on in your mind long after you close this book for the final time. It perfectly demonstrates the paradox of art – that the best creations seem the simplest, yet only a master of the craft could ever realise them.

To start with, the central mystery of the world is highly engrossing: the drip feed of information, the merest of a hint of a clue scattered here and there amongst Piranesi’s daily routine and his observations of the House, his fishing trips to the waterlogged lower halls and his interactions with the Other – the only other being in the House besides himself.

It’s because of this that I have to give the book a high rating.

And yet…

Where I disagree with many other reviewers

There is something at the heart of Piranesi that took the shine off this book. Something that threw me right out of the narrative, ejecting me from the place that had me mesmerised.

The book starts with Piranesi describing going to watch a rare event: an instance where three tides from different parts of the House all collide together and momentarily flood one of the halls. This is largely how I feel about the issue I have with the book – it arrives and collides with everything that has gone before, working at odds with the flow of the story.

Many reviewers have said about the “drip feeding” of information, or the delicate unravelling of the mystery. And I’m afraid I have to disagree.

I know I used the same words myself earlier in this article, but at a certain point in the book things completely change. We are given a vast flood of information within the space of a few pages which more or less explains away the entire mystery of the House, and some of the mysteries of Piranesi himself. It’s like turning a light on in a dark room, leaving you blinking and disoriented.

While it is true that a lot of the exact details are yet to be revealed, we are given so much information that it is easy to extrapolate. The House, Piranesi, the Other – all become much more clearly defined and demystified.

I won’t go into how this information is delivered, but suffice to say it happens several times in different ways after this key turning point. The subtlety of the earlier story gives way to a much more direct, almost encyclopaedic exploration of the premise and its characters.

There are still plenty of intriguing things going on, but part of the beauty of the earlier story was that the world is so enrapturing that I didn’t want all the answers. Certainly not so quickly, anyway.

I actually think Piranesi could have been a longer book. It’s not a sentiment I often express about a story, as even my favourite books usually are so because they are tightly plotted, using exactly the right amount of pages to tell the story, never overstaying their welcome.

I wanted a slow and gentle flow of information, like the rains that come down from the upper halls of the House, dripping down the statues to fill the water bowls Piranesi has left to collect them. Not the great crashing tides of information that we often get in the latter half of the story.

To be fair, I believe this was a stylistic choice. I imagine you’re supposed to feel the same dislocation as Piranesi as he begins to learn more about his surroundings and his history. It’s supposed to be a shock to you, as it is to him.

Perhaps if the world hadn’t been so well realised it wouldn’t have been such a shame that the focus was so harshly jerked away from it and something more akin to a traditional plot began to unfold. Indeed, the climax of the story is relatively straightforward, and to me doesn’t really suit a narrative that starts out in such an unusual and inventive way.

Given the nature of this story, the ending was a little too neat. I expected something less clear-cut, more open to interpretation. To be honest, I expected to close the book and not be entirely sure what it meant. I thought I would struggle to understand it, but that’s not really the case.

Thoroughly deserving of praise, despite its ‘faults’

Look, everyone else is currently raving about how great Piranesi is. And they’re right. The problem here is that Susanna Clarke created a world that was too good, and wrapped us in a mystery and a character so charming, so imaginatively different that the story actually gets in the way.

The setting is the main attraction for me, and that naturally has to begin to take a back seat as the narrative becomes the main focus. But I feel the switch was too sudden.

I imagine I’ll read Piranesi again, and that when I do I may enjoy it even more because my expectations have been reset.

As one of the reviews on the back of the book jacket says, this book is a ‘treasure, washed up upon a forgotten shore, waiting to be discovered’. Unfortunately for me, Piranesi surrenders its treasure far too easily.

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2 thoughts on “Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi is beautiful, spellbinding, mesmerising. But…”

  1. This was such an interesting read for me because I literally just read a review about this book that said a lot of the things that you addressed in your “where I disagree with many other reviewers” section. My partner and I saw this book in a bookstore a few weeks ago and he is really interested in it, so I’ll make sure to send him your review!

    1. Thanks Jenny. I’m glad to hear some other reviewers felt the same way, because all I’ve seen so far is nothing but praise, so I was feeling a bit heretical for having some – gasp – criticisms.

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