Piranesi is the story of a young man who lives in a House full of wonders. He calculates the times of the Tides that fill the House, he notes the beauty of the Statues that fill the House’s great Halls, and he meets with the Other, the only other human besides himself who lives in the World. The Other calls him Piranesi, but Piranesi is sure that that is not his name.
This is the second book from Susanna Clarke, author of the phenomenal historical fantasy Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, so I started reading Piranesi with very high hopes, and within pages my hopes were more than met. This book is very unlike Clarke’s first, and everything from the worldbuilding to the characters to the conflict is approached very differently. There are some light similarities – the promise of English magic and return of the Raven King in Jonathan Strange and the search for power in Piranesi, and the idea of a magical otherworld just beyond our mortal one is present in both books. The worldbuilding is such a huge feature of Jonathan Strange, and although Piranesi doesn’t show off Clarke’s eye for impeccable detail in the same way, it still has the same feeling of infinite layers in a world that exists beyond the pages we’re reading.
Another testament to Clarke’s skill is the beautiful, Swiss clock-like unfolding of the plot. This is a short book, and it revolves around the mystery of Piranesi uncovering his past and discovering the secrets that the House holds. It could easily have become dull or too simplistic but there is a lovely organic quality to every scene that engulfs you in the unfolding story without it ever seeming obvious that you’re being gently guided through various plot points.
If I had a criticism, it would be that the characters don’t form a very large part of the plot. Piranesi’s journey is discovering who he is and who he used to be, so although that conflict does arrive from character, it’s more about external influences rather than Piranesi himself.
Nevertheless, I loved this book. I wonder if readers will connect to it more now than another time as so much of the story revolves around confinement and exile and finding home and belonging in strange places. But I hope that, no matter what the state of the world, readers will enjoy Piranesi’s rich detail, its masterful handle on mystery, and the sense of wonder and beauty it holds in its heart.
© 2020 Alice Olivia Scarlett
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Alice Olivia Scarlett is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Thanet with the seagulls and parakeets.