My rating: 5 stars
An aura of mystery and eccentricity oozes out of the haunting Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. This story full of fantastical elements, enigmatic occurrences and surrealistic landscapes explores extremely human experiences, however. For a not-very-long book, it presents readers with various topics to contemplate about, such as how memories influence the way we think about ourselves, what places we choose to call home, and how we deal with traumatic experiences.
Piranesi, who believes himself to be between 30 and 35 years old, inhabits a strange, vast house surrounded by the sea. This group of halls, full of statues and connected by passages and staircases, is his entire world. Every eight years, it’s possible to witness the joining of three tides. Only Piranesi, whose journal entries readers are presented with, and the Other live in this world now, but he has found evidence that thirteen other people have existed there in the past. He also believes that a sixteenth person may one day find his journals.
Two times a week for an hour maximum, Piranesi and the Other get together to discuss their efforts to discover the Knowledge. The Other, whom Piranesi believes to be around 50 and 60 years old, thinks that there is some unknown knowledge hidden in this puzzling and labyrinthic world. He is not as fond of exploring the house as Piranesi is, though. Piranesi also worships the house in a way that the Other doesn’t. This veneration is probably the reason why the various parts of the house, or the world as it is also mentioned as, are always capitalised.
“The enormity of this task sometimes makes me feel dizzy, but as a scientist and an explorer I have a duty to be our witness to the Splendours of the World.”
From the very beginning, two questions arise. Where is this house? And how did Piranesi and the Other get there? Many possibilities spring to mind to answer these questions throughout. More mysteries await the readers and Piranesi himself, however. Once, while he is fishing in the eighth vestibule, Piranesi sees words drifting towards him. He can read “Batter-Sea”. Not long after, he also discovers fragments of paper torn out from something around one of the Halls. Only some words are discernible – “Minotaur” and “kill him”.
Although the book is set in a mind-boggling and puzzling world, the descriptions of the locations help readers to paint a suggestive picture of the house in our heads. They are detailed and mysterious in equal measure, which gives the house a magical quality.
Susanna Clarke crafted a novel that is subtly emotive. Piranesi’s moods are not extravagant and hyperbolic, but flow from the text with delicacy and in an understated way. As mysteries start being unravelled, Piranesi’s conflicting feelings and the complexity of his experiences are successfully conveyed. Words seem to have been painstakingly chosen to portray a sense of confusion mixed with acceptance and straightforwardness.
There is more to Piranesi than meets the eye. It’s a book that could be dissected to find new meanings, to look closely into the clues, and to uncover its influences. It’s the perfect book to attentively reread.