Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Before reading the rest of this review, I want you to do something for me.

Think of the last dream you had. It doesn’t have to a weird one, it could be anything. I want you to think of that dream and then consider the ephemeral nature of it, how the details shift and morph seemingly at random. Once second you’re talking to someone and the next it’s someone else, or no one at all, and you’re no longer standing on the sturdy floorboards of your home instead you’re now floating on top of the ocean, buffeted by the breeze and waves.

That feeling, that sensation of impermanence is Piranesi by Susanna Clarke.

It is a strange book. There’s no two ways about it. From the very first line it is clear this will be a different type of story.

‘When the Moon rose in the Third Northern Hall I went to The Ninth Vestiuble. Entry for the first day of the fifth month in the year the albatross came to the south-western halls.’

It’s a journal entry, clearly, but the years seemed marked by events that appear somewhat arbitrary at first glance.

This is a glimpse into the strange world the Clarke has created and what a world it is.

Piranesi was a book that I devoured. I read the whole thing in two sittings, broken only because I had to sleep and then work. It is a phenomanel feat of story-telling and yet, in writing this review, I found myself struggling to describe just why I enjoyed it and couldn’t put it down. What was this ineffable quality within the pages that held my attention like a vice?

I think I may have figured it out, but like the titular character, it was only after wandering through a labyrinth that I was able to do so.

The novel centres around Piranesi, the person writing this journal, and through this close first person perspective you and him must figure out where he is, what is this the strange world he inhabits, and how he got there.

It’s not an easy thing. Perhaps a more astute reader would have solved the mystery faster than I, but I rode Piranesi’s coat tails through the whole process and, to be honest, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Clarke’s prose is sublime. Beautiful but not pretentious, it’s simple where it needs to be and doesn’t try to overdo it. She hits the perfect notes for the strange story that she tells.

Is it perfect? No, it’s not. Some will pick up this book, read the first page and put it down again. The ethereal shroud that lays upon each page will put off some readers and fair enough, it won’t work for everyone, in fact I was surprised it worked for me. There are points in the story that are convenient plot-wise, contrivances clearly there for no reason but to push the character in the direction Clarke wanted them to go in. But these are easily overlooked as the journey Piranesi goes on has all the momentum it needs to carry itself.

Why did this book grab and hold on?

Because it’s like waking up from a dream.

Each time I turned a page it was as if I had woken up and was grasping at fragments of memory, strange and unusual, and trying to put them back together to form a picture. It’s an addictive thing, the urge to discover something that seems at the very edge of your thoughts, just out of reach.

And when I finally put together the pieces of the dream that is Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, I was left with a complete picture, a satisfying contented whole.

A dream that I can revisit any time I want, and I can assure you that I will.

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