In a continuation of our series of micro-reviews, assistant editor Brandon Williams brought together a group of ardent readers to give their quick-hit impressions of recent novels which have won major awards from the literary world. Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, winner of the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction, is our next selection.
Quick Book Summary (from the official blurb): “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.”
Piranesi is a tale that asks those who read it, “What do we do with the truth when it troubles all that we know?” as Susanna Clarke illustrates how blissful ignorance does not and cannot last forever through our point of view character, Piranesi. We follow Piranesi and his only human companion, the Other, as they seek out A Great and Secret Knowledge that pushes Piranesi to realize his home is not as knowable and patterned as he first believed. There are aspects of the labyrinth Piranesi calls home that are capitalized as if named, a community Piranesi has built for himself in this seemingly mutable house. To find out that, on the way to this Great and Secret Knowledge, that there are things that not only have yet to be named but have the power to change everything Piranesi knows as well is written in a way that strikes an empathetic chord in the reader.
This novel grips you from the start in a gentle hold, each chapter a journal entry from our brave yet soft Piranesi. These journals are a means of learning the home, the world Piranesi lives in as he does, leaving readers feeling the effect of his discoveries as if we and he are uncovering the truth in unison. You feel joy with Piranesi, worry, anger, and fear. This novel has staying power in the heart and the psyche long after reading, because it reminds us that finding the truth and Knowledge is a complex experience that can cause both harm and good. Through a prose that reads like deep introspection, alight with a musical cadence and a dreamy tone, Clarke also asks, “Who and what can we trust when our world is changing so much outside our control?” This conflict of truth and change versus normalcy is one so relatable to a fluctuating world where nothing is certain and the normal must shift drastically, much like the world that we live in now.
Susanna Clarke’s novel, Piranesi, examines the magical yet ominous world of Piranesi, also known as Matthew Rose Sorenson, a man in his early thirties who is enslaved for nearly six years in an alternate dimension known as the labyrinth, or to Piranesi, the House and the World. I admire the way Clarke uses the House as an analogy for our world. The skeletons represent the deceased and the statues represent the concept of people and the influx of knowledge flowing into the House. The story introduces many interesting and unnerving topics such as the concept of the local versus the universal, alternate dimensions and portals, and the practice of divination and occultism.
As a reader, I was fascinated with the idea of trauma and how it can transform oneself into a completely different person. The idea of transformation from trauma is the main theme in the novel. Sorenson experiences a traumatic event which transforms him into two different people. Dr. Valentine Andrew Ketterley uses Sorenson in a ritual to open a portal to the labyrinth, which he enslaves Sorenson inside. Essentially, his soul is defiled. Over the course of six years, he falls to amnesia, a side effect of dwelling in the labyrinth long-term. He transforms from Matthew Rose Sorenson onto Piranesi, a child of the House. The second transformation occurs when Sorenson finally regains his memory with the help of his diary entries and police officer Sarah Raphael’s secret messages. Sorenson reflects on the time he spent enslaved in the labyrinth and it’s too much to bear. He experiences total mental collapse and transforms again, detaching himself from the identity of Piranesi and Matthew Rose Sorenson all together. This transformation from trauma becomes the main conflict of the self for Sorenson.
As a reader, I wanted to delve more into of the main character’s trauma and who he has transformed into now. Who he used to be is dead. What he thought the world was isn’t. Local has replaced the universal. Who is he now in the local? It isn’t enough that we end the story with our main character back in the local, seeing people who resemble the statues in the labyrinth. The reader needs to know who the main character is now in relation to himself in the local and everything that has happened to him. If he doesn’t know or cannot process it due to his trauma, that’s okay, but we still need to see that if we want his character development to come full circle.
It almost feels like a story ripped from a Greek myth. A man is trapped in an unending labyrinth with rooms continuously flooded by the ocean. His only companions are the birds, thousands of statues, several skeletons, and a mysterious man he knows only as the Other. It is the Other who named him Piranesi. It is the Other who searches for A Great and Secret Knowledge. Piranesi’s life is spent memorizing the Tides, honoring the dead, and documenting his days in his Journals. There are no other people until, one day, there might be more and, with them, truths and lies to uncover.
The actual mystery of “what’s really going on here” felt predictable — I was able to piece together what was going on about a hundred pages before Piranesi did — and its ending is admittedly underwhelming. But that doesn’t detract anything, it doesn’t make the story any less enjoyable. Instead, once it’s known that Piranesi cannot understand what’s truly going on, that’s when it takes off. It becomes suspenseful, heart-pounding as we want Piranesi to discover who he is and what’s happening to him. Each discovery is a minor relief that only brings more danger to his reality. While it certainly thrills, this book also isn’t trying to be a sweeping epic. It’s not trying to confuse or have any big plot twist “gotcha” moments. Instead, it meditates. It asks questions. It asks the reader questions. How do we define ourselves? How do we define reality? How, who, and what do we choose to believe? And we, along with Piranesi, must work out some of these answers for ourselves.
It’s not a long book, but it’s complex both in theme and language. It takes a while to understand how Piranesi sees the world (everything must have a long and overly complex title like the Statue of the Woman carrying a Beehive and things like the Walls, the Staircases, and the Tides must all be capitalized) but once that is understood then the Halls of the House, the World that Piranesi and the labyrinth reside in, become accessible. Author Susanna Clarke, in many ways, must reteach the reader how to read. This makes the early sections of the book difficult to parse through (no training wheels here) but if a little effort is put in this becomes a truly unique and amazing novel. So much is fit into such a slender novel and it’s a testament to Clarke’s ability to be so incredibly direct and succinct even when her main character gives everything such lofty titles. It’s with such few words that Clarke makes her story, and its questions, linger long after it has been put back on the shelf.
In Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, a nameless narrator wanders through a House filled with endless halls and statues, seemingly alone except for a handful of skeletons and a man known only as the Other. The mystery behind all of these disparate threads unravels slowly, especially as the narrator, nicknamed Piranesi, is focused more on chronicling his environment rather than questioning it.
It’s hard to say more without giving too much away, and in a sense, that’s part of the magic of this little book. There is no easing gradually into the world of the House — instead, Clarke has opted for full-on immersion by framing the story as entries from Piranesi’s journals. This forces a careful observation of every detail, even when they don’t make yet sense, and also highlights the dreamlike and atmospheric quality of the House that is all part of the puzzle of Piranesi.
Curated by Brandon Williams