Book review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

I don’t know what makes this little book so appealing.  Maybe it’s the very pleasant protagonist.  Or perhaps the visuals.  Or the writing, which prepares you for tedium and disappointment in the first act, only to explode into a fascinating story with twists that are usually expected, but still inexplicably satisfying.  Ultimately, Piranesi is a cute little story that feels inconsequential within its large and strange universe.  It’s a very human story with an eminently likable protagonist and fascinating worldbuilding.  It’s been a true pleasure to read this book.

Piranesi is a man who lives in a house.  This is not an ordinary house, though.  It stretches seemingly indefinitely in all directions, with its halls, atriums, staircases and rooms full of marble statues, with the sea flooding some of the rooms, and tides forcing Piranesi to move from one place to another.  He lives there almost alone, surviving on fish and seaweed.  The only other person he meets is the Other, who tasks him with things like mapping a certain portion of the labyrinth or taking photos of certain rooms.  Occasionally, Piranesi requests items, such as new shoes from the Other, and he delivers them.  In addition to the Other, Piranesi counts another thirteen people, all dead and desiccated, strewn around the labyrinth.  He takes care of them, leaving them offerings and speaking to them.

One day, the Other warns him that another person may come look for Piranesi and confuse him to the point of madness.  If this happens, the Other would have to kill Piranesi to protect himself.  Instead, Piranesi meets an old man who throws around names of strange people.  Piranesi has been keeping a diary for years, and now he searches his earliest diaries for the names the old man mentioned.  Piranesi, in his degraded mental state, struggles to understand the full picture, but the reader starts getting a good idea of the other world Piranesi is living in, and how he got there.  When the new person, whom Piranesi labeled as Sixteen, arrives, she fills in the last blanks on Piranesi’s true identity and the role of the Other.  In the finale, the Other is killed in a tidal wave as he tries to shoot Piranesi and Sixteen, and Piranesi is reintroduced to our world.

It is unlike me to not reveal the entire plot in my reviews, but I made a rare exception here.  The plot is actually pretty straightforward, but half of the fun of reading this book is trying to piece together what had actually happened.  Doing that is surprisingly easy, as is reading the rest of the book.  The narrative is pure simplicity: a largely linear story (albeit presented in disjointed timing), very straightforward characters who don’t evolve even under the most strenuous circumstances, and absolutely no fluff around.  And somehow this works perfectly.  The way this novel is written in some way makes the reader take everything for granted.  It was only after I finished the book, I started asking myself questions on the origin of the labyrinth, the greater truths that the researchers have been looking for, the actual effects on the mental wellbeing of its occupants, and many other elements of the worldbuilding.  Somehow, I managed to completely immerse myself in the book without questioning the author.

This wasn’t true from the beginning, though.  The first act was very laborious, and I almost put the book down.  It introduces us to Piranesi, the narrator and protagonist, as he describes the labyrinth and his diaries to great detail.  From the beginning, it is evident how unreliable a narrator Piranesi is.  He sounds mentally challenged, and he spends so much time describing various statues and the remains of the dead people that I zoned out here.  That may have had several purposes, though.  The most obvious one would be to make the reader more sympathetic to Piranesi.  When he explains the same dead people to the Other and later to the old man, they both zone out just like I did.  That’s when I understood that I was thinking just like the intruders in the labyrinth, while its inhabitant had his brain wired in a different way, and I began to appreciate Piranesi’s mental processes a little more.

The second reason for the excessive and largely useless exposition in the first act may have been to catch the reader off guard and then slam him with a character and story, which may have seemed more mundane if the book started with those.  Ultimately, Piranesi is extremely one dimensional.  He is without a single evil cell in his body.  He fully trusts the Other, he is self-sufficient with the little he has and properly grateful for anything extra, he can’t even imagine hurting another person and when the Other tries to kill him, Piranesi is still trying to save the Other.  Even the most extreme conditions don’t change Piranesi at all.  This is not apparent at first, though, because Piranesi comes across as mentally challenged, and so when his personality is revealed, we see it as character development.  The same goes for the story.  It begins with a simple man living in a mysterious house full of statues.  He performs his daily chores and talks to the few animals he can find, the marble pieces and the dead.  There is a sudden turn, which forces Piranesi to investigate why he is actually in the house.  The answer to that question is very linear, but it feels much more complex because the reader got lulled into thinking that the book would be more of a description of a wondrous world than a criminal mystery.

Speaking of the worldbuilding, this is a good time to talk about Piranesi.  The titular character was named as a sort of inside joke, as we learn from the book in two different places.  I’ve read the first mention of this joke deep in the night in my reading room, and I didn’t feel like going downstairs to my computer for a little research until the next day, when I was much farther in the story.  I found that there was an Italian architect and sculptor in the 18th century, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, who created a set of illustrations depicting strange buildings he dubbed prisons.  These etchings are reminiscent of the much later illustrations by M. C. Escher, with their strange perspectives and impossible angles.  They depict the inside halls and rooms of mansions, full of wondrous statues, sprawling marble staircases and absolutely dwarfed humans.  By the nature of the drawing technique, they also feel very oppressive.  When I saw them, I was startled to realize how well these were described in the book.  The most impressive thing, however, is that these illustrations are not really described.  We learn the most about the mansion through Piranesi’s actions, and we get only a feeling of this place.  Susanna Clarke managed to convert the feeling Piranesi’s art into words more perfectly than I’ve ever seen anyone else do it.

Some people may criticize one thing, but I actually appreciated it: the long list of unanswered questions this book poses.  There is no explanation for the existence or meaning of the labyrinth, or why some people can access it, why it messes with people’s minds, where the tides come from, what the statues represent, and much, much more.  Clarke presents everything through the eyes of her exceedingly unreliable narrator, Piranesi, who does not understand there is more to the world than his meager existence inside the labyrinth.  In fact, at one point he thinks it’s ridiculous that the world would contain as many as seventy people.  As such, everything is presented as a matter of fact.  Of course, there’s a sprawling mansion with sea in its lower rooms and tides.  Of course, there are thousands of detailed statues just standing everywhere.  Of course, there are people randomly appearing in the halls.  Piranesi’s way of thinking is so infectious that I didn’t even think of asking these questions until the book was over.  The real power of this narration, however, lies in the fact that it greatly simplifies the story.  The book is relatively short, and I think that’s a good thing.  Explaining everything away would turn it into something much more tedious and divert the reader’s attention from Piranesi’s tragedy.

I personally could not find a flaw with the book.  It is very tightly written, without any superfluous elements, and even though it doesn’t try to explain its concepts, has little character development and presents a very simple story, the book feels very rich in content.  The mood of the prose is consistent throughout the story, and I appreciated the fact that there were no genuinely evil characters.  Piranesi himself perhaps comes across as too bland and forgettable, but I think I’ll retain a good image of mansion in my head for a long time.  In my opinion, this book is a very strong contender for the 2021 Hugo Award.

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