Piranesi By Susanna Clarke
Updated: Jul 24
I joined a book club with a bunch of friends recently. I enjoy discussing books, thought-provoking books, in real time as opposed to through message boards or the written word. And since everyone of us is currently in lock-down, it seemed like a good time to do a deep dive on some solid new books that we’d never read otherwise.
And so, here we are. Our first book was called “Piranesi,” by Susanna Clarke. It’s a book that’s a weird mix of fantasy and sci-fi. It was bizarre. I’m talking really fucking bizarre, but I enjoyed it. It’s a short book, around two-hundred and fifty pages, and I personally think, along with everyone else in the book club, that it was the perfect length.
From here on out there will be spoilers. The next few paragraphs will contain only minor spoilers. I’ll drop a second warning before I write about major spoilers.
The first thing I noticed about the book was the language. I thought for the longest time that the narrator was an eight year old girl, when it turns out it’s a thirty-five year old dude. It blew me away because the way the story is written is with lots of innocence. You’re viewing the story and the setting for the first time along with the narrator. The language is simplistic, but it’s what makes it work. You’re thrust into this world with zero build up, nor explanation, and you’re figuring everything out along with the narrator. It’s a great way to show-don’t-tell. If you're a video game nerd, like myself, think of this book as a walking simulator ala "The Outer Wilds."
The second thing is the setting. It's set in a gigantic maze filled with (what I assume are) tight vestibules and large attached rooms. What I picture for the latter are gigantic white church halls with lots of pillars and marble statues. It seems pretty basic, but each hallway is slopped and open on one end to a vast, eternal ocean that sometimes laps up in the halls, and other times is just there, like a cozy character hiding in the shadows, waiting to give you a hug. It’s a pretty cool setting that I found myself getting sucked into the deeper the narrator explored.
One thing I wasn’t super stoked about, and neither were my companions in the book club, was the depth of the characters. They’re pretty one-dimensional. While this can hamper the story somewhat, as there is no real character development outside of the narrator, it kinda works, as each central character plays a certain role in the narrator’s eyes.
I loved the fantasy elements of the story, where the narrator is sucked into an alternate reality, that is one giant maze, by a sadistic, research driven dude called The Other. As stated above, about character’s being one-dimensional, I thought it worked well for The Other. It’s clear that this character would never show something other than strict interest in the labyrinth when speaking with The Narrator, although seeing The Other turn heel was an easy guess because he always seemed so shady.
Back to the matter at hand of the fantasy land. It was interesting to delve into this setting while in lockdown. The sense of isolation was harder hitting than it ought to have been, I imagine, but to say that’s the only reason it hit home would be selling Susanna Clarke short. Susanna did an excellent job filling this labyrinth with interesting areas and small characters. I really enjoyed how The Narrator became friends with the Albatross, and the piles of bones they found strewn around the labyrinth. I found it especially cool how The Narrator performed little rituals for the bones, and gave them offerings as if they were tiny, forgotten Gods, (I have a special place in my heart for The Biscuit Box man). You never find out about their background, but I liked them all the same. It all leads to a very complete sense of world building, which is more than I can say for some authors, so kudos to you, Susanna Clarke.
The final point I want to go over is the statues and the ending. So, if you haven’t read the book, stop now, go and read it, and then come back to finish off this review.
You’re back? Good! So, about the statues and the ending. When The Narrator finally makes it back to their real world, they’re struck by the similarities of the people that they walk by and how they remind them of the statues they saw spread throughout the labyrinth. To me, it seems like the statues are all people they’ve met in life. The Narrator mentions a certain human walking along the road that reminds them of a statue of a King, and that they took the best part of them and projected them upon the statues. This may seem silly, but to me, The Narrator actually had a mental break from reality. Sure, in the book it’s an alternate universe, and that may be true, but unless Susanna Clarke tells me otherwise, I’m sticking with my theory! The reason I hypothesize this is because, along with the statues, The Narrator goes to see another victim of The Other. That victim feels so grateful to have someone who had experienced the same situation as they did. The Narrator says they take the other victim back to the labyrinth, but you never see it (at least, I cannot remember that happening). So, I hypothesize that they had a palaver about their shared experiences and that “brought” the first victim back to the particular feeling of isolation and led them to relive their mental break.
Anyway, that’s it. Despite some of my misgivings about the novel, I would rate it a solid 4.5 outta 5. Check out Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke here to grab a copy.