Erin Larson: Book Reviews & Essays

“Piranesi” by Susanna Clarke


By Susanna Clarke


I received an ARC of Piranesi from Bloomsbury in exchange for an honest review.


If you’re interested in Piranesi, you are likely a fan of Susanna Clarke’s first (and, for sixteen years, only) novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which took the world by storm in 2004—it sold millions of copies, won the Hugo Award for Best Novel, and was adapted as a television miniseries. I can see my own copy of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell as I write this, a thick black tome that looks capable of crushing any critter unfortunate enough to have it dropped upon them, but I have yet to crack the cover; it was Clarke’s reputation alone that drew me to Piranesi, a much slimmer volume about which I knew next to nothing when I began reading.

Knowing next to nothing when you begin is the ideal way to experience Piranesi, so I’ll provide only the barest bones of the premise. Piranesi wanders the seemingly-infinite corridors of the House, a fantastical world which he is committed to exploring and documenting; the only other living person in the House is a man Piranesi refers to as the Other—soon, however, Piranesi comes to believe that a third person, a person with malicious motives, is inhabiting the space.

I often find mysteries anticlimactic and unsatisfying, but Piranesi is the real deal: I was instantly ensorcelled, eager to identify the third person and the implications their existence would have for Piranesi, the Other, and the House. Equally engaging is the mystery of the House itself. Where did it come from? Do its statue-lined corridors stretch on forever? Why aren’t there any other people? Clarke answers some questions and leaves others to the imagination, but I was entirely satisfied by the end of the book—the questions left unanswered give the story room to breathe, and the questions resolved feel adequately foreshadowed and logical in the context of the world.

This is at least partially due to Clarke’s prose and characterization of Piranesi, whose first-person perspective is written in a naïve, clinical, archaic style: you might expect it to be dense and frustrating, but it is instead charming and readable. Clarke commands the English language with absolute authority—I probably couldn’t name more than a handful of other authors who have such control over their prose (Shirley Jackson inhabits this rarefied air, as does Faulkner at his best). Every word is precisely placed, every sentence exquisitely crafted, every paragraph seamless. Piranesi is the work of a master magician, a writer who has her fingers deep in the guts of language, and she makes it do things you forgot it could do. It is nothing less than thrilling.

One of the things I love most about Piranesi is how its allegorical elements are secondary (not that I’m opposed to primarily allegorical stories; I actually like them quite a bit, provided they’re done well). The world is not an unused coloring book, and the characters are not receptacles for theme and metaphor—their wants and needs don’t feel dictated by the plot, and that makes the allegorical elements which are present that much more resonant. I won’t say what those elements are for fear of giving away too much. But I was ultimately surprised, and pleased, by how human and grounded Piranesi was: I found it deeply moving in ways I never would have expected.

Piranesi is a perfect book. I doubt anything better will be published in 2020.


Review by Erin Larson

Piranesi will be published September 15th, 2020.