When a book opens with a diary entry dated in ‘The Year the Albatross Came to the South-Western Halls’, you know you’ve opened the door on something bizarre and it’s impossible not to hope that it will be a story which will continue to fascinate as the pages turn. Piranesi does just this. It sets expectations high but it lives up to and surpasses them with ease at every opportunity. There’s never a dull moment as, even in the most mundane descriptions, as a reader you are learning and gaining a better understanding of this strange world and of Piranesi, the man at the heart of it.
It’s definitely a book which benefits from an unsuspecting reader. It rewards ignorance with magic and mystery and, in every sense, serves as a gothic classic for the modern age. By blending the real and the supernatural in ways that aren’t always clear at first, Piranesi delivers a story so haunting and endearing that it will linger long in the mind of its readers.
Susanna Clarke introduced herself to the literary world with her debut novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, a fantasy reimagining of English history. It was a book that left fans hungry for more of Clarke’s writing and it has been a long wait for her second novel to appear in the shops. Piranesi never disappoints or struggles with the weight of this anticipation but it is also a very different book to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.
In her debut, Clarke drags the reader in with detail after detail, complex magical politics on a global scale and pages and pages of footnotes that instil in the world a rich history of English magicians. In contrast, Piranesi is short and sweet. It doesn’t have the time to paint the perfect picture of the endless halls providing the backdrop. Instead of luring you in with every detail explicitly laid out, this world evolves by relying on the questions asked and the blank spaces where words are left unwritten.
The plot begins as a simple story about the day-to-day movements of the eponymous protagonist. It’s written as a series of diary entries by Piranesi himself and there is such wonder and amazement in these accounts that readers will empathise with him from the very first page. There’s something of a childish vulnerability and trusting nature expressed in his writing that becomes all the more evident as the story progresses and all the more terrifying to the reader on Piranesi’s behalf.
Soon after the start, he begins to notice strange, inexplicable events. Some are experienced in the present and some written down in his past diaries but all of them challenge his certainty in his private world. He begins to question the things he is so sure of at the start of the book and soon, this relatively simple story has become a complex, gothic mystery.
One of the marvellous things about Piranesi is the setting. It features a mansion of endless halls with windows into courtyards but never a door leading out. At first it seems an odd setting but it’s perfectly suited to Clarke’s tone and, through her prose, you can imagine every detail and crack in the stone. Piranesi is clearly a true native of these halls. His understanding of their rhythm, the tides that flood the lower halls from time to time, and the population of statues, birds and skeletons scattered throughout the halls give the impression that he has always lived in the house. For the most part, he believes he has but this assumption leaves so many early questions in the reader’s mind.
There is only really one other that Piranesi speaks to in the halls. Not knowing his name, Piranesi refers to him as ‘The Other’ and this name really explains the veil of secrecy around the character in the best possible way. He appears as a friend to Piranesi and it is clear in the beginning that they have had a long time to get to know one another but there is always something unsettling about his manner. This is a story that makes good use of dramatic irony: more and more becomes clear to the reader yet Piranesi remains blind, and perhaps willingly so, to the subtleties of the plot unfolding around him.
The protagonist is the best thing about this book. True, it would be nowhere near as good without its beautiful yet haunting setting but the sympathy that Piranesi can evoke in his simultaneously questioning and accepting view of the world had me willing him to prosperity. He talks a lot about birds which seem to be one of the few species that also populates the halls and the way he describes their flight always suggested to me that he was longing to sprout wings and join them. There is a suspicion early on that he is a prisoner of the house even if he is at home in the halls. He doesn’t reflect much on the possibility of a world beyond the house but I think this is most likely just out of his fear of the unknown.
For such a short book, Piranesi is one of the best formed stories I have read in a long time. It is able to lure you in just like a book of epic scale can and, somehow, Clarke manages to squeeze in a rich story and satisfying conclusion too. It is a book for mystery fans and fans of the gothic genre in particular but I think that Piranesi is such a profoundly charming protagonist that anyone could enjoy this book and its dark, twisting plot.
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