Piranesi is a fantasy novel from Susannah Clarke, best known for the acclaimed novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. It is published by Bloomsbury, released on the 15th of September 2020, and is longlisted for the Women’s Prize 2021.
If you want to know more about the Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2021, do check out my single sentence summaries for the books, available to read here.
This is a very strange little book. That much, whether you enjoyed it or not, you cannot dispute. Personally, I did enjoy it. However, I can easily see why this book also has had its fair share of negative reviews.
Firstly, let’s look at the plot of the book. Essentially, we follow a person who is given the name of Piranesi living in a labyrinthian house that is prone to great floods. Once a week, Piranesi meets with the Other, the only living person he comes into contact with. We follow the story through Piranesi’s diary entries.
The plot itself is simplistic, but the complexities of the book, and the author’s skill is showcased through the world-building. Much like the labyrinthian house, the world-building of this book becomes much more complex than you first realise. We learn plenty about the house, and Piranesi’s circumstances, but it still feels like we are only scratching the surface. It feels as though Clarke has notebooks full of world-building that we never see. As a reader, you feel safe in the hands of an author who seems to know exactly what to show you, and what to leave behind the curtain. Each piece that the author shows us feels purposeful, hence why this book is less than 300-pages. I imagine that this will be especially beneficial upon rereading the book because there seems to be more than is possible to take in on a single read.
The world-building of this book involves more than just the physical, as the author develops multiple worlds simultaneously, without the reader realising it. The physical house is the most obvious of these worlds, and it is the most tangible, though the use of vivid description that is both ornate and desolate. However, once you finish the book you realise that she develops this world both through the eyes of our narrator and as an entity in itself. There is additionally the mythology and magic of these worlds which fit into the narrative beautifully. It is the element of mythology, and religion, and magic, and the combination of all three that makes this such a re-readable book for me. The inclusion and development of these themes change the genre from what you are expecting and are lead to believe, but the book stays true to the story and the characters.
In terms of pacing, the book is a little strange. It does not feel as though it follows a traditional map of pacing. Instead, it begins rather slowly, until a particular event and then everything snowballs. Once that event happens, you do not get much time to breathe because the momentum is unstoppable. As a result, the latter half of the book feel a little more rushed because the first part is so slow in comparison.
The characterisation is not particularly strong. However, this is not a character-driven sort of book. It is a concept-driven book, and you can see the effort that has gone into building the world. Instead of following people, it feels as though you are following figures through this narrative. This made the story feel much more mythical than a traditional story, as it began to resemble a fairy tale. Ordinarily, I prefer the character-driven book but in this case, I was utterly enamoured by the mythology that I didn’t mind.
Where the book lost me was in the final chapter. For a book that seems to be so interwoven with magic and mythology, I didn’t like that everything was so neatly wrapped up. It surprises me to be writing this, but I wanted the ending to be more ambiguous. The final line, which I was expecting to be brilliantly needed to be pushed just that little bit further. This is a book that gives you so much, but I feel like the ending pulled back a little and that was disappointing to see.
Overall, I gave this book four out of a possible five-star rating. I was spellbound by the magic and mythology of the world. It felt like a darker, more condensed version of The Starless Sea, but it does not manage to quite stick the landing.
Piranesi is available to purchase now from the usual places. Don’t forget to support your local bookshops and libraries where possible.
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