Savannah Murray reviews Susanna Clarke’s novel, Piranesi, along with the best place to read the fantasy novel.
What to read….
Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi is a testament to the power of space and place. The novel focuses on Piranesi, a young man who lives in a castle, called the ‘House’. Piranesi lives a simple enough life: he must find food for himself among the sea of water which infiltrates the house, escape the waves when they become too high, and above all else, survive. Occasionally, he meets ‘The Other’, a mysterious character, and the only other person within the house. Apart from this, Piranesi lives in solitude with only wild birds as company. Soon, he begins to find clues that suggest that the ‘House’ may not be the only world out there, and that all may not be as simple as he once believed.
The way the novel is set means the reader is drawn into a world where nature and infrastructure run alongside one another in a tumultuous sort of unity: the ever expansive castle, the intrusive ocean, and Piranesi’s need to survive. This is truly the selling point of the novel, as Clarke manages to recreate many of the natural occurrences we already know, but presents them as though they are something entirely new. Piranesi marvels at these earthly wonders. His delight in the movement of tides, or the changing of seasons almost resembles a paganist fascination with the natural world. Similarly, the novel explores the beauty of art, and the house is filled with large stone statues, many of which tower over Piranesi. He also uses these as spiritual guides, not quite gods, but alike to tarot cards, which he reads and uses in order to guide himself. The setting is vital, and it consumes Piranesi.
Clarke manages to recreate many of the natural occurrences we already know, but presents them as though they are something entirely new.
The writing style is at times convoluted, and readers may find themselves struggling to comprehend what is happening, especially in the first few chapters. This is due to the fact that each chapter is written as an entry in a diary, but this is at first a bit unclear. Piranesi’s timeline does not move linearly, but he instead marks the passing of time with significant events that the reader is unaware of. With time and patience, however, this novel pays off and Piranesi’s unique way of tracking time becomes an endearing addition.
It must be understood that Piranesi is a complicated novel. It is contemplative at times, but never to its own detriment. It is the sort of novel that will have you googling it, in order to find novels like it, because it is equal parts unique and immersive. It is filled with mystery and emotion, and questions that are never truly answered, but its greatest strength lies in Clarkes ability to construct images, to utilise art and architecture, and to build a world using only one space and a minimal amount of characters. Piranesi feels as though it is, amongst other things, a celebration of the barest elements of life, while simultaneously demonstrating humanity's ability to do harm to one another.
And where to read it…
Piranesi was meant to be read outdoors. It’s the sort of novel that makes you appreciate nature, so it's fitting to surround yourself with beautiful scenery. Imagine sitting in a large garden while reading a book filled with the redefining of the natural world, physically and intellectually engulfed in the wondrous beauty of nature, as it is both restricted and private. The Memorial Gardens in Dublin are an location for this, as there are multiple ponds and a couple of stone features that would definitely suit the imagery of Piranesi.
Imagine sitting in a large garden while reading a book filled with the redefining of the natural world…
If you don’t have access to a garden, or it becomes too cold to sit outdoors in the coming months, another option would be to read Piranesi in an unusual place, that you usually do not frequent. This could be a new coffee shop, a train, or even somewhere in your house you don’t usually sit. Piranesi centres around a new perspective, and it would be valuable to experience this through fresh eyes and in a new atmosphere. A long train journey would definitely be the perfect time to read Piranesi because, as a liminal space, it would completely disorient you from your everyday life, and perhaps allow you to immerse yourself fully in Susanna Clarke’s mastery.