Piranesi – another stunner from Susanna Clarke

O ye! who have your eyeballs vexed and tired,
Feast them upon the wideness of the Sea. John Keats

Susanna Clarke, author of the wonderful Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (which was made into a TV series) has written another visual stunner.

Her new book, Piranesi, has been nominated in an amazing four award rounds this year - the Nebulas, the Hugos, the British Science Fiction Association Awards, and the Women's prize for Fiction!


A cross between The Gormenghast Trilogy and The Secret History, this book is about a labyrinth; a world contained in a classical building that appears infinite; complete with marble statues, its own ocean tides and weather patterns.

"The Beautiful Orderliness of the House is what gives us Life." (p.7)

Written during lockdown, was this book a response to being shut in one space, seemingly forever? 

Piranesi, not his real name, is the 'Blessed Child of the House'  - a Robinson Crusoe character, subject to its weathers and wonders. Thinking he has always been there, Piranesi is marooned in the house, which he quite rightly calls the World. His only friends are the birds, the fish, the statues and the dead...

Except for one other - the Other - who visits him twice a week, from where, he knows not. Piranesi assumes the other has his own halls within the house. The Other uses Piranesi for assistance in his search for a 'Great and Secret Knowledge' within the labyrinth - ancient magic that will grant him the power of immortality, transformation and flight, to name a few.

"The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite." (p.5, 245)

Piranesi spends his time chronicling the wonders of this world: he maps the halls and constellations seen through its enormous windows, records unusual occurrences, the statues, tides and abundant bird life, to keep himself safe from drowning, and from getting lost in time and space. Capital letters emphasise important events and objects in his journals.

The only other humans who have been here are dead. They number thirteen. 'Piranesi' and 'The Other' make fifteen. They are lovingly attended by Piranesi, whose journals contain clues as to who these remains may have been in life, and a possible conspiracy.

The arrival of another, the sixteenth human in this world, complicates our hero's friendship with the Other. Who is '16', and what are his intentions? This is the crux of the story, riding on the delights of experience in this portal place.

The action in this powerful tale builds until it reaches a powerful crescendo:

"There was a Great Rush and a Great Roar in the next Hall; a Weight of Water hit the other side of the Northern Wall. Boom!!! And then I was grateful that we had climbed down the the Horned Giant. If we had still been standing on the Cornice, we would have been flung off the Wall. But the Horned Giant held us fast. 

Spray as high as the Ceiling exploded through all the Northern Doors. The Spray caught the Sun; it was as if someone had suddenly thrown a hundred barrelfuls of diamonds into the Hall. Great Waves surged through the Northern Doors. (p.207)

Would Piranesi go back to the real world, given a choice? Would you? I found the resolution of this wonderful tale very satisfying.

"It is my belief that the World (or, if you will, the House...) wishes for an Inhabitant for Itself to be a witness to its Beauty and the recipient of its Mercies." ..."If I leave, the House will have no Inhabitant and how will I bear the thought of it Empty? (p.228)

Clarke imparts the beauty of this story with very visual figurative language, invoking its wonders and the sounds and smells of the basement ocean in the Drowned Halls. I could almost feel the spray on my skin. 

Piranesi is a book that will stay with you. It reminds me of The Silmarillion - at times I've found my mind returning to its beautiful still halls, washed by the sea. Its message, perhaps, is that fantasy is always with you whenever you wish to dip into it. 

Giovanni Battista Piranesi was an architect and archaeologist known for the Carceri d'invenzione; his pencil drawings of enormous vaulted prisons... of which the total is, 16.

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