Piranesi (Book Review)
by Susanna Clarke
An engrossing and hypnotic story that keeps you guessing, Piranesi is a lyrical mystery that will please those who enjoy the mythology of labyrinths and themes of isolation.
I can’t really say much else without giving away too much. Even a description of the setting would be unfair. I went into the book knowing nothing at all, which was the way to do it, I think.
I’m going to break this review into three parts. My very vague review for people like me, who don’t want to know anything about the story but are intrigued by the concept. A non-spoiler review that goes a bit deeper but without plot twists. And then a spoiler-area because I need to defend my rating. Very Vague Review
The novel is a mysterious and deeply enthralling story with a likable albeit unreliable narrator. The prose is beautiful while at the same time clear and concise. I was never confused or bored. The novel is very mimetic, in that we're on the same journey that Piranesi is on: trying to figure out what it all means.
A Bit More Detail Review
People who crave exposition will not enjoy this very much. Though Piranesi info-dumps a little at the start to get us going, it’s artfully done in a way that raises more questions than answers. You spend most of the novel trying to decipher whether everything mentioned is some sort of clue as to what’s going on or whether it’s symbolic of something else.
The temple and labyrinth are well-described and I believed that Piranesi could survive there. I loved the concept of the flooding and how it impacted the structure over time. I loved the small details, like the mysterious skeletons and the albatross.
I’m not super fond of epistolary novels, especially journals. You really have to suspend your disbelief when it comes to what details people would include if the journal were real. This novel makes this an easy task you often forget it’s a journal, though it being a journal is part of the plot. There’s a mystery to be had, though I found that paled in comparison to the temple itself. The novel’s real strength is in its descriptions and ability to convey tone. I wish it were longer and more complex. As someone who reads a lot of sci-fi and “experimental” literature, I didn’t find it all that weird or demanding intellectually.
*** HERE BE SPOILERS **
Unfortunately, the novel is almost too literal for me. I definitely enjoyed it and think it’s quite beautiful in its prose and concept (and I would buy it used from somewhere), but I was kind of hoping for more. There is no real twist - it’s evident from the get-go that Ketterly was the “bad guy”. True, I thought Ketterly was camping out in this realm instead of merely visiting once and a while (I always assumed it was some sort of liminal space between worlds or a dead dimension) and could travel back to Earth to get supplies. I was slightly wrong but correct enough.
I enjoyed the journey of reading it, for sure, but the ending for me was rather hum-drum with no real punch to it. In the end, I was like “Oh. Ok.”
I had so many questions. Why does the labyrinth, or perhaps the realm itself, cause amnesia? Who made the temple? Where did they go? If it’s people from Earth, perhaps the ancient Greeks or Romans, how did they build it? Are the birds natural to that plane or are they from Earth? Is this Waterworld? Is Piranesi living in a temple that survived on a hill? (Typical “sci-fi reader” questions, I guess.)
I adore labyrinths, and I love Greek mythology, so I was a little let down that there wasn’t some more symbolism behind the statues. Yes, there were references to the Minotaur and a few others, to reinforce the maze concept. It was also alluding, I believe, to Plato’s The Cave, where Piranesi is clearly the prisoner who comes to understand that what he believes is reality is not reality at all. But it was so literal, like the Matrix. I would have enjoyed it more if the entire thing was all concocted within Piranesi’s head as a way to deal with being kidnapped by Ketterly for years. Instead, he’s literally in another plane of existence that he isn’t interested in determining the origins of. What was the Knowledge Ketterly was seeking? Why did he think it was there? I guess I wanted a bit of a deeper expedition into the labyrinth itself, rather than why Piranesi was there.
In truth, I found the novel deeply enjoyable, very easy to read, and quite fun, but it felt a little surface-level to me. I’m not saying it isn’t intelligent in its themes of even execution - perhaps it would do more for me on a second read - but it didn’t hit me hard enough to love it.
Still, highly recommended for people who want something different.