Book Review: Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi

This book is one of those that, if I’d visited a bookshop, I would have seen emblazoned with ‘long-awaited new book from the brilliant author that brought you Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell‘. Some of you might remember that I read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell last year, and found it elegant, if difficult to read, mostly on account of its pace/plot. Susanna Clarke has done it again, according to various review sites, producing something totally different to her debut, but equally critically fascinating.

So, knowing little more than that, I bought it on Audible, remembering well that I wished I had listened to the first epic tome. Admittedly, this one is much shorter, so possibly already better for my short attention span.

Cover of Susanna Clarke's Piranesi
Cool cover – Grecian vibes – not particularly more I could tell from it. In hindsight, Pan, the god of chaos would have been a good pointer towards… something.

Unspoilery synopsis

Literally all the positive reviews for this book start with “try to get into this book with as little knowledge of the plot as possible”, and I think they’re right. So I didn’t really know what to for this regular section of my book review. Long story short, it’s a book about a man who copes with a weird, otherworldly environment that is a house (I think the written version renders it House – capitals for Significant Nouns) that has a lower floor awash with the ocean, and an upper floor that is full of clouds. There are fish and birds, but he initially only knows of one other person. The main character, nicknamed Piranesi by the only other living person he knows, has to unravel the meaning behind the world in which he exists, and possible other people that he could meet there.

Narrative and prose quality

When drafting this blog, I made a sort of word-association cloud to cover the affective process of this book. Here are some of the words that came to mind when thinking through my experience of the narrative and prose quality of Clarke’s novel:

labyrinthine, tenebrous, romantic, fantasia, solitude, perspective, lack of continuity/perspective, neoclassical, enigmatic, allegory, tenebrism, occult, transgressive thinking, Alone-ness, alienation, mythology

Again, without giving the game away too much (because I think it is worth a read/listen), I feel it is fair to say that it’s a book that’s kind of in a class with Pale Fire (Nabokov, 1960s) and The Secret Agent (Conrad, 1900s), but obviously written in the 2010s, so add some extra layers of postmodernism to the mix. I saw one review that declaimed Piranesi as a Book for a Certain Kind of Reader (TM), and I definitely agree with this estimation. It’s full of major lit-fic lols. (Lit-fic, or Literary Fiction, is commonly held up as the opposite of genre fiction, in a false dichotomy that foolishly insists that genre/pop fiction is “not worthy” of being considered good, and is never well-written. This topic gets me v. hot under the collar, because it’s spurious nonsense, and in lots of cases is an excuse to publish dense, prosy, inaccessible self-serving books [think what less polite word might have been there in draft one of this blog] and hold these up as the pinnacle of literary achievement. See all the excellent genre writers laughing on their way to the bestseller list, most of them not caring that they’re not in the lit-fic category.) I think it’s a book for people who like to feel smart because they read books. And I think that it’d not be out of place on a literary fiction reading list for a final year undergrad lit course, or even for a postgrad course about the modern novel. I had a seminar on ‘The Modern and Postmodern Novel’ in my final year of undergrad, and this would totally have fitted in on that reading list.

One disadvantage of having Clarke’s work delivered by audio is that you miss the capitalisations and other textual nuances – at one point, the main character encounters the word Battersea, which you can sort of hear how it is rendered, but I know that in print, it is written Batter-Sea, making the familiar strange.

As with Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, there is plenty of skilled world-building, but what a strange stage Clarke sets for the action. It’s a weird space that plays off elements of familiarity with sheer off-the-wall otherness. The first-person perspective, teamed with the clear gaps in the main character’s knowledge, adds to this destabilised effect – the reader never really knows what information is reliable. Classic unreliable narrator vibes, which is only reemphasised through Piranesi’s interaction with the character he initially calls The Other, but finds out is actually called Valentine Ketterley. Piranesi (just going to have to call him that because you begin not knowing his name) has to grapple with gaps in his own understanding and records to figure out who is trustworthy and who is the enemy – which, in this odd other-world, has pretty literal implications.

Allusions abound

Allusions and reference to other works (literary or cultural) are a cornerstone of the postmodern novel and literary fiction. Some of the allusions went straight over my head, and partially that’s because of the medium I consumed the book in. A key reference that sort of pops up through the novel is to C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, particularly to The Magician’s Nephew, the first book. Andrew Ketterley (the titular magician) sends his nephew and a friend to another world as part of a magical science experiment. The book uses a quotation from The Magician’s Nephew as its epigraph, which I took in, but then immediately kinda forgot – so I had this nagging Narnian feeling, but kept attributing it to the faun on the cover and the minotaur statues around the House. So, I feel like Clarke gets some points from me on that front. Nagging Narnian impression, which only deepens the further you read. It’s a great way to add moral nuance to the strange space that is the House, and the interactions Piranesi has with others there.

The other chief allusion is to Giovanni Battista, aka Piranesi, a neoclassical architect and archeologist, known for his etchings of otherworldly prisons/spaces. This is something that you have to find out by being driven by your curiosity to Google/wikipedia to find out more. It’s a pretty cool reference that enriches the book, but I’m sure that’s nothing on what I can imagine was a crazy tangle of strings on a bulletin board for the author. I enjoy these sorts of books that I can imagine the cogs clicking over in the author’s mind – and I’m sure this book will provide someone (or several someones) with interesting topics towards a PhD at some point.

Worth it?

I’m pretty glad I read it, and I’m sending it to a friend as a gift (need to put in that order, in case she reads the blog). I’m also pretty glad I read it by listening to it. I found the narrator on the book, Chiwetel Ejiofor, did an excellent and compelling job.

I am a Certain Kind of Reader (TM), as referenced by that review I read when I was finished with the book. Or at least, I was that kind of reader at one point; I guess that’s what happens when you do a MA in literature. (Yes, I’ve always had a major preference for genre fiction over literary fiction, but considering those categories are more about sales than about anything meaningful, well, I feel like *smart books* are what you make of ’em.) Even counting myself a reasonably advanced reader who has experience in lit-fic and The Postmodern Novel, I found it pretty darn confusing.

Not that that’s always a bad thing.

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