Book Review: "Piranesi" by Susanna Clark
A beautifully written book that gives little away at the start yet lays the perfect amount of breadcrumbs to keep you reading. But depending on your taste for literary fiction, I can’t say it would be everyone’s cup of tea
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Piranesi’s house is no ordinary building: its rooms are infinite, its corridors endless, its walls are lined with thousands upon thousands of statues, each one different from all the others. Within the labyrinth of halls an ocean is imprisoned; waves thunder up staircases, rooms are flooded in an instant. But Piranesi is not afraid; he understands the tides as he understands the pattern of the labyrinth itself. He lives to explore the house.
There is one other person in the house—a man called The Other, who asks for help with research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. But as Piranesi explores, evidence emerges of another person, and a terrible truth begins to unravel, revealing a world beyond the one Piranesi has always known.
Piranesi is a strange one. It's beautifully written. You can't argue that. Clarke creates a mysterious yet beautiful world and shows it to us through the eyes of a character with a lot more to him than we see at first glance. But none of this is engaging. None of it made me want to keep reading.
So why did I?
Well, there were two reasons. One was how well Clarke dropped just enough breadcrumbs to make me want to know more about the two characters, Piranesi and The Other. While this world is fantastical, we know it's all rooted somehow in the "real" world, leaving us wanting to know exactly how. How did Piranesi get here? What happened to him to turn him into the person he is now, with no memory of the past?
The other thing was how short the book is. Compared to other books I've been reading recently, it's tiny. And because it was this short, I was never worried I was wasting my time with it. I had the reassurance of knowing that even if the eventual answers turned out to be unsatisfying, I wouldn't have wasted too much time.
And while we're on the subject of the book's length, it isn't too short. It's the perfect length for the story it tells. The danger with literary books such as this one is that the writer feels poetic language and beautiful prose can make up for a lack of plot and character. I can think of several authors who would have doubled the word count without adding anything to the actual story and considered it a better book. But those authors are wrong (and often unreadable). But Clarke knows the exact length Piranesi needs to be and sticks to it.
The story itself is fascinating, managing to be esoteric enough to intrigue us without overdoing it to the plot things no longer make sense. It's also one of those books where I can't help but feel there's far more depth than I'm able to see. Like Erin Morgenstern's The Starless Sea, Piranesi gives me the feeling that everything we see is a literary or philosophical reference of some kind. Only I'm not well read enough to get them all. It doesn't take anything away from the story. In fact, it makes the world feel somehow grander, giving it a layer of something just out of my perception.
I can definitely recommend Piranesi. It's nothing less than a beautifully written story that drops the reader into a minutely realised world that always feels bigger than we can see.
But saying that, I don't think it's going to be everyone's cup of tea. But I think something people will find themselves wanting a more engaging story and characters, while others will want more decorative prose. For me, however, it had exactly the right amount of both. And while it's definitely not the sort of book I would actively look out for, I ended up very much enjoying it.
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