December Book Review: 'Piranesi'

Dec 8, 2020

Author Susanna Clarke’s recent novel introduces us to a breathtaking new world and an intriguing protagonist who’s trying to make sense of his place in it. Dan Compton has this month’s book review of Piranesi.


The statue of a faun playing a horn, standing on a marble pillar surrounded by water is the cover image of Susanna Clarke’s new mysterious novel Piranesi. We learn early on that Piranesi is the inhabitant of what he calls “the House” or “the World.” It’s a vast labyrinthine realm containing infinite marble halls linked by vestibules and stairways. The lower halls are often submerged with seawater, and the upper halls can be filled with clouds and sometimes rain. Piranesi spends most of his time in the mid-level halls researching and cataloging the House’s many statues and the birds that frequent them. He documents the tides and knows when and which middle halls will flood. He survives by collecting rainwater from the upper halls and fish, crustaceans, and seaweed from the lower halls.

As far as Piranesi knows, there is no end to the House and he has always lived there. He knows of no other world beyond and believes only fifteen humans have ever lived, thirteen of whom died before him. He visits the bones of the deceased from time to time and brings them offerings of food and water. The only other living human is a well-dressed man Piranesi calls “the Other.” They meet twice a week and Piranesi helps him gather information about the House which the Other believes contains “a Great and Secret Knowledge” that will give them special powers.


The Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi is famously known for his etchings of fictitious subterranean prison-like vaults with stairs and immense machines, but Piranesi doesn’t make this connection to the nickname the Other has given him. He senses it isn’t his real name, but he never really questions this or why he can never travel to the end of the House. 


Revealing anything else about this atmospheric novel would be doing you a disservice. This is an unconventional mystery and it clearly contains fantastical elements as well. I loved how it didn’t conform to one genre or the other. Clarke slowly reveals more about Piranesi and how he came to be in the House. We are along for the ride as Piranesi makes discoveries and begins to question everything he has ever known to be true.


This book will appeal to fans of Neil Gaiman and Madeline Miller, and of course Clarke is very well known for her 2004 debut novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.  


Piranesi can be found in our local libraries. For KPCW this is Dan Compton with the Summit County Library.