Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
Published by Bloomsbury, 2020
Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
I’m having a hard time organising my thoughts for this strange little novel. I found it utterly compelling to read, the setting that Clarke has created both rich and absorbing, but I didn’t find it as surprising or revelatory on a thematic level as most other readers seem to have done.
As many have opined, it’s probably best to head in knowing little about the plot (though, it’s also possible that being geared up for an inevitable twist set my hopes too high, and I would say the major details aren’t all too hard to determine). Suffice to say we follow Piranesi, who lives a near solitary existence in a mysterious flooded house, characterised by its endless labyrinthine halls, towering statues, and changing tides. He believes himself and one other with whom he has sporadic interactions to be the only living people to inhabit the world, but predictably, everything is not quite as it seems.
The book is written in the form of diary entries that detail Piranesi’s various endeavours to explore and understand this world. Fortunately, he is both interesting and likable as a protagonist, and Clarke’s prose makes it a pleasure to spend time inside Piranesi’s head as we piece together the narrative’s puzzle pieces alongside him.
Though never landing any kind of emotional punch for me, the book does ruminate on the likes of loneliness, trauma response, memory, and the nature of identity. I took it primarily as an exploration of the idea that we can make peace with our place in the world, and whether or not it is possible to find contentment in ignorance.
That said, the book isn’t as impenetrably cerebral as I feared it would be based on people’s deliberately ambiguous reviews (it is tough to discuss without spoilers). Yes, there are depths to be mined and many literary references to be picked apart if you so wish, but on a sentence-by-sentence level, Piranesi is also simply an enjoyable read. Carried by a singular setting that is brought to life vividly on the page, and a protagonist who is easy to root for, I’m glad I picked this up, even if just for the truly unique reading experience it presents.