Clarke: Piranesi

February 20, 2023

Susanna Clarke
(Bloomsbury, 2021)
272 p.

In recent months most of my reading has been drawn from ancient Greek literature. I’ve noticed, as anyone would, that things happen in those stories that don’t happen anymore. Gods appear and speak. Strange creatures, like fauns and minotaurs, live in the woods or the mountains, and nymphs inhabit the rivers. Clearly, something happened in the meantime to deprive us of these things. Where did they go, and could anything be done to bring them back?

Piranesi is an attempt at an answer. It’s a difficult book to write about without spoilers, so I am going to be brief and maybe elliptical. In a sense, it marks a natural continuation of the leading concerns of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, though the book as a whole is more pointed and personal. Its literary touchstones would include C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew and Borges’ infinite library.

Piranesi is our narrator, and the book is epistolary in form, consisting entirely of his journal entries. His world, we recognize immediately, is a strange one, and only gradually, by accumulation of small, incidental details, do we come to understand why. He himself is one of the novel’s chief attractions; he is child-like, pious, earnest, and trusting — a beautiful character who has lingered in my imagination since I finished the book some time ago.

In fact the spirit of the book is beautiful. Its many concerns — what honour do we owe the dead? can we live in harmony with the world? what is friendship? what constitutes true greatness? — are treated with unerringly sound instincts. Considered as a portrait of natural piety, I’m having a hard time thinking of its equal. I’m grateful to have read it.

5 Responses to “Clarke: Piranesi”

  1. mj263 Says:

    One of my favourite books of last year. Piranesi was such a gentle, wonderful character.

  2. Janet Says:

    I can’t remember if we have discussed this before, but I read Piranesi in 19 hours minus however long I slept that night. I literally could not put the book down, and I think of it often.


    • cburrell Says:

      You did mention it before, Janet, when I brought the book up a few weeks (months?) ago. I was much slower than you, of course, but I also think of it often.

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