Piranesi

by Susanna Clarke

Cover image

Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Copyright: 2020
ISBN: 1-63557-564-8
Format: Kindle
Pages: 245

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Piranesi is a story told in first-person journal entries by someone who lives in a three-floored world of endless halls full of statues. The writing style is one of the most distinctive things about this book (and something you'll have to get along with to enjoy it), so it's worth quoting a longer passage from the introductory description of the world:

I am determined to explore as much of the World as I can in my lifetime. To this end I have travelled as far as the Nine-Hundred-and-Sixtieth Hall to the West, the Eight-Hundred-and-Ninetieth Hall to to the North and the Seven-Hundred-and-Sixty-Eighth Hall to the South. I have climbed up to the Upper Halls where Clouds move in slow procession and Statues appear suddenly out of the Mists. I have explored the Drowned Halls where the Dark Waters are carpeted with white water lilies. I have seen the Derelict Halls of the East where Ceilings, Floors — sometimes even Walls! — have collapsed and the dimness is split by shafts of grey Light.

In all these places I have stood in Doorways and looked ahead. I have never seen any indication that the World was coming to an End, but only the regular progression of Halls and Passageways into the Far Distance.

No Hall, no Vestibule, no Staircase, no Passage is without its Statues. In most Halls they cover all the available space, though here and there you will find an Empty Plinth, Niche or Apse, or even a blank space on a Wall otherwise encrusted with Statues. These Absences are as mysterious in their way as the Statues themselves.

So far as the protagonist knows, the world contains only one other living person, the Other, and thirteen dead ones who exist only as bones. The Other is a scientist searching for Great and Secret Knowledge, and calls the protagonist Piranesi, which is odd because that is not the protagonist's name.

Be warned that I'm skating around spoilers for the rest of this review. I don't think I'm giving away anything that would ruin the book, but the nature of the story takes some sharp turns. If knowing anything about that would spoil the book for you and you want to read this without that knowledge, you may want to stop reading here.

I also want to disclose early in this review that I wanted this to be a different book than it is, and that had a significant impact on how much I enjoyed it. Someone who came to it with different expectations may have a different and more enjoyable experience.

I was engrossed by the strange world, the atmosphere, and the mystery of the halls full of statues. The protagonist is also interested in the same things, and the early part of the book is full of discussion of exploration, scientific investigation, and attempts to understand the nature of the world. That led me to hope for the sort of fantasy novel in which the setting is a character and where understanding the setting is a significant part of the plot.

Piranesi is not that book. The story that Clarke wants to tell is centered on psychology rather than setting. The setting does not become a character, nor do we learn much about it by the end of the book. While we do learn how the protagonist came to be in this world, my first thought when that revelation starts halfway through the book was "this is going to be disappointing." And, indeed, it was.

I say all of this because I think Piranesi looks, from both its synopsis and from the first few chapters, like it's going to be a world building and exploration fantasy. I think it runs a high risk of disappointing readers in the way that it disappointed me, and that can lead to disliking a book one may have enjoyed if one had read it in a different mood and with a different set of expectations.

Piranesi is, instead, about how the protagonist constructs the world, about the effect of trauma on that construction, and about the complexities hidden behind the idea of recovery. And there is a lot to like here: The ending is complex and subtle and does not arrive at easy answers (although I also found it very sad), and although Clarke, by the end of the book, is using the setting primarily as metaphor, the descriptions remain vivid and immersive. I still want the book that I thought I was reading, but I want that book in large part because the fragments of that book that are in this one are so compelling and engrossing.

What did not work for me was every character in the book except for the protagonist and one supporting character.

The relationship between the protagonist and the Other early in the book is a lovely bit of unsettling complexity. It's obvious that the Other has a far different outlook on the world than the protagonist, but the protagonist seems unaware of it. It's also obvious that the Other is a bit of a jerk, but I was hoping for a twist that showed additional complexity in his character. Sadly, when we get the twist, it's not in the direction of more complexity. Instead, it leads to a highly irritating plot that is unnecessarily prolonged through the protagonist being gullible and child-like in the face of blatantly obvious gaslighting. This is a pattern for the rest of the book: Once villains appear on stage, they're one-note narcissists with essentially no depth.

There is one character in Piranesi that I liked as well or better than the protagonist, but they only show up late in the story and get very little character development. Clarke sketches the outline of a character I wanted to learn much more about, but never gives us the details on the page. That leads to what I thought was too much telling rather than showing in the protagonist's relationships at the end of the book, which is part of why I thought the ending was so sad. What the protagonist loses is obvious to me (and lines up with the loss I felt when the book didn't turn out to be what I was hoping it would be); what the protagonist gains is less obvious, is working more on the metaphorical level of the story than the literal level, and is more narrated than shown.

In other words, this is psychological fantasy with literary sensibilities told in a frame that looks like exploration fantasy. Parts of it, particularly the descriptions and the sense of place, are quite skillful, but the plot, once revealed, is superficial, obvious, and disappointing. I think it's possible this shift in the reader's sense of what type of book they're reading is intentional on Clarke's part, since it works with the metaphorical topic of the book. But it's not the existence of a shift itself that is my primary objection. I like psychological fantasy as well as exploration fantasy. It's that I thought the book after the shift was shallower, less interesting, and more predictable than the book before the shift.

The one thing that is excellent throughout Piranesi, though, is the mood. It takes a bit to get used to the protagonist's writing style (and I continue to dislike the Affectation of capitalizing Nouns when writing in English), but it's open-hearted, curious, thoughtful, observant, and capable in a way I found delightful. Some of the events in this book are quite dark, but it never felt horrifying or oppressive because the protagonist remains so determinedly optimistic and upbeat, even when yanked around by the world's most obvious and blatant gaslighting. That persistent hopefulness and lightness is a good feature in a book published in 2020 and is what carried me through the parts of the story I didn't care for.

I wish this had been a different book than it was, or failing that, a book with more complex and interesting supporting characters and plot to fit its complex and interesting psychological arc. I also wish that Clarke had done something more interesting with gender in this novel; it felt like she was setting that up for much of the book, and then it never happened. Ah well.

As is, I can't recommend Piranesi, but I can say the protagonist, atmosphere, and sense of place are very well done and I think it will work for some other readers better than it did for me.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2021-08-01

Last modified and spun 2021-08-02