Book Review: Piranesi


“Since the World began it is certain that there have existed fifteen people. Possibly there have been more; but I am a scientist and must proceed according to the evidence.”

The protagonist and narrator of Piranesi is a young man who believes himself to be between thirty and thirty-five years of age. He lives largely alone in the House, a building made up of many vast halls on several levels whose walls are lined with statues depicting both humans and other creatures. Predictable Tides flow through the lower levels, occasionally rising higher to engulf the halls where the young man spends much of his time. It is one of these events that opens the story, with the young man clinging to a statue as the Sea sweeps over him before receding.

Twice a week, for no more than an hour at a time, the young man meets with the Other. It is this older man who provided his younger associate’s moniker, Piranesi – not the name he once had, although he cannot remember what that might have been. Together they seek ways to unlock the Knowledge. Piranesi remains quietly unconvinced that this is a good or necessary aim.

“I realised that the Other’s description of the powers the Knowledge will grant has always made me uneasy. For example: he says that we will have the power to control lesser minds; there are only him and me and we both have keen and lively intellects. But, supposing for a moment that a lesser mind existed, why would we want to control it?”

The young man reveres the House, believing it benevolent and capable of providing him with everything he needs. He collects rainwater to drink. He catches fish to eat. He talks to the birds that build nests within the halls. He eats neither them nor their eggs. Piranesi looks after the bones of those he believes once lived within the halls before him. He looks forward to meeting the next inhabitant who he refers to as Sixteen, although he has been warned by the Other that this person, should they arrive, could be dangerous.

The reader learns how Piranesi came to live in the House and the role the Other plays in his life. Reveals are gradual and intricately presented. The world building is exceptional. Plot progression is built around Piranesi’s learned habits and the changes he must then deal with.

The young man keeps journals and it is through these that he starts to question how reliable his memory is. Being largely happy and content to live in the House, such questions perturb his carefully constructed equilibrium. He tries always to think positively about the Other so is concerned by some of the actions the older man suggests may be necessary.

Although there is an element of the supernatural, this is not key to what the reader is being encouraged to consider. The House is Piranesi’s world. It is so vast he believes any other people who exist must reside within halls he has not yet travelled to. He has no concept of a beyond although at times shadows flicker in his mind that he cannot quite grasp.

A beautifully structured and developed story that questions what life can be and if those who know nothing else will personally benefit from elucidation. Not all questions may be answered, but the choices Piranesi ultimately makes will linger. A thought provoking and exceptionally well told tale.

Piranesi is published by Bloomsbury.


Robyn Reviews: Piranesi

‘Piranesi’ is the second novel by Susanna Clarke, author of ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’, and one of the rare fantasy novels to cross over into the mainstream consciousness. Along with being nominated for the the fantasy staples of the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards, it was nominated for the Costa Book Award and won the Women’s Prize for Fiction. With a brilliantly clever premise and engaging prose, it’s easy to see why it has such wide appeal, but personally I didn’t find the ending had quite the impact I wanted.

Piranesi lives in the House. The House is a labyrinth of endless rooms, each filled with hundreds of statues and inhabited by an ocean that intermittently floods them with its restless tides. Piranesi is one of only two occupants of the House. There is also The Other, a mysterious man who visits Piranesi twice a week so Piranesi can help his research into The Great and Secret Knowledge. Piranesi loves his House, dedicating his life to studying it. However, the arrival of a visitor to the House shatters Piranesi’s world, and all his understanding of the House and its beauty starts to unravel.

‘Piranesi’ is a novel to go into with as little knowledge as possible. It’s a short book of gradual realisation, and starting from any point but ignorance robs it of some of its impact. Other reviews I’ve seen favour the second half, where things are clearer for the reader and there’s the tension that comes with waiting for the characters to catch up; strangely, I feel the first half of the book is by far the stronger, with a sense of confusion and building tension that grows as the reader starts to connect the dots.

One of the strongest aspects of the book is the writing. Clarke uses a lot of short, sharp sentences, reflecting the very literal way in which Piranesi sees his world. She creates a brilliant sense of place and atmosphere without resorting to flowery language – her ability to say a lot with few words is excellent. For some people the style might take a little time to get used to, but it adds to the sense of tension and slight disconnect from reality.

There are very few characters in the book, making the reader’s connection with Piranesi very important. Sharing too much about Piranesi might delve into spoiler territory, but he’s an easy character to like and sympathise with.

Whether or not this book works for each individual reader essentially hinges on how well the twist works. There’s a great deal of foreshadowing and by the time the climax happens there’s a simultaneous sense of horror and satisfaction. However, I didn’t buy into it as much as I wanted to. I absolutely loved the House and the creativity of the premise, but certain elements of the twist felt more contrived and underwhelming. I also felt it tried just a little too hard to explain all the fantasy elements, which removed some of their glorious magic. There was an undercurrent of morally grey ethics which I adored, but I wanted the fantasy elements to be just a little stronger.

Overall, ‘Piranesi’ is a short book worth reading for the excellent faculties of language, creativity of premise, and crossover appeal to fans of both fantasy and more literary fare. It didn’t blow me away as much as I wanted it to, but if you’re curious about the hype, it’s definitely worth giving it a read.

Published by Bloomsbury
Hardback: 15th September 2020 / Paperback: 2nd September 2021