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Posted on 17 Sep 2020 in Fiction |

SUSANNA CLARKE Piranesi. Reviewed by Louise Mentor

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Fans of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell will not be disappointed by her latest offering.

Piranesi is a transcendental mystery set in a harsh yet wondrous fantasy world that raises challenging questions about the nature of reality, identity, and belonging.

Written as a series of journal entries, the story is narrated by a male aged between 30 and 35 who describes himself as a scientist and explorer. His adopted name is Piranesi. He inhabits a vast ephemeral landscape called the House, a labyrinthine world of grand sweeping staircases that flow through halls colonised by birds, mysterious skeletons, and statues  that – to his eyes – are not merely sculptures, but figures instilled with life:

Adjoining Halls usually share some characteristics. The Hall immediately to my rear was approximately 200 metres in length and 120 metres wide and so the chances were good that the Hall before me was the same. It did not seem an impossible distance; I was more concerned about the Statues. From what I could see, these depicted human or demi-human figures, all two or three times my own stature and all in the throes of violent action: men fighting, women and men being carried off by centaurs or satyrs, octopuses tearing people apart. In most Regions of the House the expressions of the Statues are joyful or tranquil or possessed of a distant calm; but here the Faces were distorted in screams of rage or anguish…

With Piranesi the author has broken with the literary devices of her earlier work; no more lengthy footnotes running half the length of a page, fewer ironic cross-references. Instead, references are woven into the story itself or embedded in the text. That being said, her signature voice remains stoic and prosaic. She plays with language to serve the story best, masterfully using the format of the journals as a kind of geographical log to map the physical and metaphysical elements of the vast regions of the house. In Piranesi’s journals capitalisations occur with unusual frequency in a system of his own invention:

The Ninth Vestibule is remarkable for the three great Staircases it contains. Its Walls are lined with marble Statues, hundreds upon hundreds of them, Tier upon Tier, rising into the distant heights.

Struggling with lapses of memory, he has also devised his own system of recording the passing of time in this remarkable place:


His records reveal a deep engagement with the elements and seasons as he precisely charts his experiences of tides and winds in the strange ecosystem of the house. He survives by eating fish and dried seaweed fished from the interior lakes, resourceful and utterly alone. His days are taken up communing with birds and reverently tending to the dead,  placing offerings beside the skeletons he has carefully preserved in the upper halls. The recurring theme of ritualism is introduced in this somewhat macabre way, yet for Piranesi it is an honourable and peaceful part of his existence.

His only contact with another living human being occurs twice a week, with a man he refers to as ‘The Other’. Also a scientist, The Other is a male aged between 50 and 60. As Piranesi has forgotten his own name, The Other is responsible for naming him with this ‘name to do with labyrinths…’ Perhaps this is also an allusion to the 18th-century Italian artist, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, known for his classical etchings of immense, ambiguous structures akin to atmospheric prisons or subterranean labyrinths. Structures not unlike the house Piranesi inhabits.

Engaged in philosophical and scientific inquiry, The Other is on an obsessive quest to discover ‘Great and secret hidden knowledge’, a quest he cannot complete without the assistance of Piranesi, who knows the house inside out and can guide him to the best places to perform the rituals that could potentially uncover the knowledge.

The Other believes that there is a Great and Secret Knowledge hidden somewhere in the World that will grant us enormous powers once we have discovered it. What this Knowledge consists of he is not entirely sure, but at various times he has suggested that it might include the following:

  1. vanquishing Death and becoming immortal
  2. learning by a process of telepathy what other people are thinking
  3. transforming ourselves into eagles and flying through the Air
  4. transforming ourselves into fish and swimming through the Tides
  5. moving objects using only our thoughts
  6. snuffing out and reigniting the Sun and Stars
  7. dominating lesser intellects and bending them to our will

The Other and I are searching diligently for this Knowledge.

Their exchanges during their quest for the great and secret knowledge are characterised by The Other’s obvious contempt for Piranesi, and laced with a paranoid edge of trickery. We get a sense of an almost Orwellian act of psychological manipulation going on, but with the fragmented nature of Piranesi’s observations it is impossible to know the exact nature of the deception. By this point, of course, we are so immersed in the fantastical world Clarke has created that we accept their friendship through Piranesi’s eyes, even as we suspect that he is too innocent, too trusting, and that imminent danger awaits him.

With the introduction of a third human character in the form of a prophetic old man, further illumination about the mystery of the house itself and Piranesi’s place within it comes to light. Immersed in Piranesi’s strange reality it comes as rather a shock to the reader when Clarke introduces the idea that nothing is what it seems, that indeed the House itself is potentially a place of danger, ‘a source of madness and forgetfulness’.

Other clues are scattered throughout the notebooks. We get a sense that Piranesi’s existence is not peripatetic by chance, but harks back to Aristotelian principles, and to other ways of thinking. When Piranesi finds old journal entries he had written at some earlier point in time, he uncovers references to words he now finds obscure – words like Manchester and police station.

Perhaps I was indeed in an altered state of consciousness when I wrote them? I find this theory persuasive, but it leaves several questions unanswered. What did I do to achieve this altered state? And why, when I have always thought of Myself as a scientist, did I begin this practice in the first place?

The finding of the old journal entries hints that the mystery being uncovered is one involving missing persons who disappeared from a more familiar reality. A schism occurs. Another possible reality is hinted at. A dark suspicion forms that Piranesi is somehow the victim of an intellectual cult with an enigmatic leader. A cult of neo-pagans, conspiracy theorists, scientists, ex-mathematicians, brainwashing, occultist heretics, transgressive thinkers, or impenetrable romantic heretics? Has Piranesi ended up here as a result of some occult mechanism? And is he able to escape?

With the rhythm of the words invoking an altered state of consciousness, the reader is left to contemplate the most terrifying premise of all: that magic actually works. A haunting tale of complex ideas that challenge our perception of reality, Piranesi is a work like no other. Strange, unsettling, and deeply compelling.

Susanna Clarke Piranesi Bloomsbury Publishing 2020 HB 272pp $27.99

Lou Mentor is a screenwriter and script editor, and co-writer of the feature film Pimped (watch the trailer here). You can connect with her on LinkedIn here.

You can buy Piranesi from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.