Book Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Today’s book review covers a fascinating science fiction book which I totally did not see coming! Piranesi by Susanna Clarke is the summer book club pick for a podcast I sometimes follow, Speaking with Joy. I trust Joy’s taste in books and have enjoyed listening to her summer book club podcasts for the last two years even though I did not read along either time. This year, despite my busy work and school schedule, I decided to try to read the book as well. Thankfully it’s a fairly short book at just a little over 200 pages. Because Piranesi is science fiction, I was initially unsure about it. I expected it to be weird, predictable, and somewhat boring while engaging to some extent with meaningful topics. Instead, I entered an incredible world filled with mystery, awe, drama, and miracles. I was hooked by the second section, and I think if you are open to science fiction you will be, too.

About the Book

Book Cover

Title: Piranesi

Author: Susanna Clarke

Genre: Science Fiction

Date of Publication: 2020

Synopsis (from Goodreads): 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 visits Piranesi twice a week and 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.

Review

As I said in the introduction, I did not expect to be completely swept up in this book, but I was by the time I finished the second section. In fact, now that I’ve finished Piranesi, I’m almost ready to question my previous statements about disliking science fiction books in general. Maybe science fiction is too broad of a genre for such definite statements; perhaps I simply had not found the kind that fit me best. Piranesi is a much more serious version of science fiction than I have encountered elsewhere; this book engages in conversation with classic literature and art, sometimes on a level that I did not recognize until it was pointed out in the podcast. For example: the book opens with a quote from C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew, which I recognized and appreciated as setting the tone for the book. Then, about a quarter of the way into the book, there is a scene that bears strong similarities to a portion of Rime of the Ancient Mariner. This reference went entirely over my head despite the fact that I studied Rime in school. When Joy discussed this in the podcast, it added depth and clarity to that portion of the book.

The story is told mainly through a series of journal entries by our protagonist, Piranesi (although, as far as he can remember, that is not his name). You don’t have to read too closely to realize that the author is experimenting with the idea of an unreliable narrator, but Piranesi is an instantly likeable character. Discovering Piranesi’s world and the characters who populate it is a highly rewarding journey. I don’t think I can say much more without taking away from that joy of discovery which is so integral to experiencing this book!

The Verdict

Piranesi is not a book you can read in a vacuum. To understand it thoroughly, you have to have a strong awareness of Western literature over the past few centuries. Without this foundation, it is an odd story which may appeal to a few; with some knowledge of the stories which came before and the thinkers the author draws from it becomes an incredible tale of discovery, betrayal, and human nature. It’s somewhat open-ended, so if that bothers you, just be aware going in that the resolution is somewhat vague. I still found it satisfying.

Overall, Piranesi is an impressive four-star read which I recommend to those with a background in Western literature and an interest in science fiction. Joy Clarkson’s podcast adds a substantial amount of context and, I believe, increases understanding and appreciation for this book

I hope you don’t mind that today’s review is a little more vague than most. Piranesi truly is a wonderful book; at times it is fun and exciting, and other times it is heartbreaking. Reading this book felt like going on an adventure while exercising my literary background. Listening to Joy’s podcasts about the book have added a substantial depth to my appreciation, too. This book is aimed for a certain type of reader, and I hope that you will all find and enjoy it.

Have you ever read a book because someone on a podcast recommended it? How was it?

Until the next chapter,

Jana

5 thoughts on “Book Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Add yours

  1. At what point did you get into it? I tried it once but didn’t get very far at all in the first chapter because I found it a bit confusing to follow and nothing initially grabbed me.

    Like

    1. I was intrigued with the idea of the book from the beginning, but I really got into the story itself throughout the second section, “The Other.” The fact that I DNF’d House of Leaves a few months ago also influenced how much I wanted to complete this though, and going into it wondering if Piranesi would be similar to HoL made the elements which could have been confusing instead be more palatable. The characters take on a lot more depth as the story progresses, too, which also makes things more interesting in my opinion.

      Liked by 1 person

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