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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Susanna Clarke

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To purchase Piranesi

Title: Piranesi
Author: Susanna Clarke
Genre: Novel
Written: 2020
Length: 245 pages
Availability: Piranesi - US
Piranesi - UK
Piranesi - Canada
Piranèse - France
Piranesi - Deutschland
Piranesi - Italia
Piranesi - España

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Our Assessment:

A- : a very well executed piece of world-building and unraveling

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times A 15/9/2020 Rebecca Abrams
The Guardian . 17/9/2020 Paraic O'Donnell
Literary Review . 9/2020 J.S.Barnes
Locus . 8/2020 Gary K. Wolfe
The LA Times . 14/9/2020 Hillary Kelly
New Statesman A+ 30/9/2020 Rowan Williams
The NY Rev. of Books . 8/4/2021 James Walton
The NY Times Book Rev. A 18/10/2020 Amal El-Mohtar
The Observer . 4/10/2020 Alex Preston
Publishers Weekly A+ 10/6/2020 .
The Spectator . 19/9/2020 Suzi Feay
Sunday Times . 13/9/2020 Lucy Atkins
The Telegraph A- 6/9/2020 Nikhil Krishnan
The Times . 3/9/2020 Sarah Ditum
TLS . 30/10/2020 Beejay Silcox
Wall St. Journal . 11/9/2020 Sam Sacks
The Washington Post A 8/9/2020 Ron Charles
World Lit. Today . Winter/2021 Marisa Mercurio

  From the Reviews:
  • "Haunting, tantalising, enigmatic, profound -- it is all these and more. (...) If this all sounds a bit bonkers, it is ! Like the infinite House, the novel's fantastical plot is one more labyrinthine construction, seductive and captivating and replete with monsters. But as the clues fall into place and the puzzles are resolved, the press of the story cedes centre stage to larger, more tantalising questions." - Rebecca Abrams, Financial Times

  • "(W)here Jonathan Strange was populous and richly polyphonic, Piranesi is a tenebrous study in solitude. It is also newly mysterious. (...) Clarke fuses these themes, seducing us with imaginative grandeur only to sweep that vision away, revealing the monstrosities to which we can not only succumb but wholly surrender ourselves. The result is a remarkable feat, not just of craft but of reinvention." - Paraic O'Donnell, The Guardian

  • "With Piranesi, Clarke is knowingly taking a number of risks. In place of the wry, knowing Austenian voice of the earlier novel, she offers an ingenu¬≠ous narrator who remains several steps behind the reader for most of the novel. Character roles remain shifty and indeterminate for much of the story, and questions of the reliability of memory and testimony are never far from the surface. But in the end, the elegant and ingenious structure of the novel lends it a haunting quality which would not be nearly as hypnotic were the story told any other way, and "hypnotic" is the term I find myself returning to in trying to account for the novel's strange and powerful magic." - Gary K. Wolfe, Locus

  • "(A) little imp of a book that packs a punch several times its (relatively) meager page count. (...) (S)he creates a dazzling world of infinite fascination inside the musings of one very simple man. (...) Piranesi is a portrait of us as young readers, swept into a story and happy to stay there." - Hillary Kelly, The Los Angeles Times

  • "The pace of Clarke's storytelling is mesmerising. The slow accumulation of bizarre detail, related in Piranesi's quiet, even voice, builds steadily so as to increase the reader's disquiet: this is a World that makes ¬≠orderly sense to Piranesi and is utterly bewildering to the reader, for whom stray clues, hints and unfinished business constantly press up against the calm of the narrative surface. The cliché that this book is hard to put down is for once true; I can think of few recent books that keep the reader so passionately hungry to know what happens next and to understand the hints and guesses that appear in greater and greater profusion. (...) This is a novel of exceptional beauty, something which surpasses even the lovely, gratifyingly ironic prose familiar from Clarke's first book." - Rowan Williams, New Statesman

  • "(A) quietly dazzling novel of abiding and intriguing peculiarity. (...) Another way, then, of reading Piranesi is as a meditation on the limitations of modern rationality. (...) At the same time, you could make a case that Piranesi (...) is also a study of the unconscious, the traditional alternative explanation for the supernatural." - James Walton, The New York Review of Books

  • "I found myself pulled along as much by Piranesi's voice -- sweet, earnest, passionate -- as by a desire to puzzle out what genre I was in. Was this a play on C. S. Lewis's city of Charn, or a postapocalyptic novel set in the remains of the London Underground ? Was Piranesi in a generation ship ? (...) I don't want to risk reducing the plenitude of this novel to allegory: It is rich, wondrous, full of aching joy and sweet sorrow." - Amal El-Mohtar, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(I)ts many layers and complex metaphysics make for a reading experience that feels large in the mind. It reminded me repeatedly of one of the books that lit up my childhood -- Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast. It has the same vast imaginative reach, the same gothic intricacy, and it does the same thing of creating a world that feels none the less real for all its fantastical strangeness. Piranesi was worth waiting for: the most gloriously peculiar book I've read in years." - Alex Preston, The Observer

  • "With great subtlety, Clarke gradually elaborates an explanatory backstory to her tale's events and reveals sinister occult machinations that build to a crescendo of genuine horror. This superbly told tale is sure to be recognized as one of the year's most inventive novels." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Piranesi, so limited in knowledge and experience, must use logic to survive. Whether he is better off in isolation, with all its poverty and limitation or safer seeking out human contact is the question posed in this dazzling fable about loneliness, imagination and memory." - Suzi Feay, The Spectator

  • "Piranesi is a prisoner in his labyrinth rather than its designer, and the confusions of his perspective are confusions rather than clever artifice. The cleverness of Clarke’s construction begins with her decision to immerse us, more or less from the start, into Piranesi’s view of his World. Every new revelation comes to us as a surprise, as it comes to him." - Nikhil Krishnan, The Telegraph

  • "Susanna Clarke's Piranesi is the stuff of half-remembered dreams. (...) There is something intoxicating about Clarke's joyful castaway, a character so unencumbered by the weight of identity and ego. In another author's hands his naivety might be stifling, but Piranesi seems more free in his crumbling prison than we are in our worldliness. (...) Clarke's House is an allegorical play space, with its anthropocene lessons in environmental stewardship and its reflections on the amnesiac quality of trauma. But the chief joy of Piranesi is that it is a space with limitless room for the reader to roam through, and no signposts" - Beejay Silcox, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The hypnotic quality of Piranesi stems largely from how majestically Clarke conjures up this surreal House. It is not a place in the world; it's a world unto itself. (...) Clarke's power certainly extends beyond mere suspense, but her story relies on the steady accretion of apprehension that finally gives way to a base-shifting revelation. Until you read the book yourself, keep your wand drawn to ward off the summaries of enthusiastic fans and clumsy reviewers. (...) Perhaps Clarke's cleverest move in this infinitely clever novel is the way she critiques our obliterating efforts to extract deeper meaning and greater value from everything in our world." - Ron Charles, The Washington Post

  • "At first bewildering, the novel steadily unravels the puzzle at its core to satisfying ends. Its dramatic irony, which sets in about halfway through, establishes an unsettling but riveting tone and aids the reader in understanding the world in which Piranesi is enmeshed. Further ruminations on the ethics of knowledge, and the cosmos and our small place within it, develop the novel to a degree of profundity that refrains from didacticism. A thoroughly charming novel, Piranesi offers a world of escape haunted by the darkness of reality." - Marisa Mercurio, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The narrative in Piranesi is presented in the form of journal-entries by its eponymous protagonist. The choice to present it in this form is integral to the novel: it is a story based in and built up on texts -- and the occasional message, written in a variety of forms. The man called Piranesi -- a name he understands is likely not his actual one -- is not exactly an unreliable narrator, but, as even he becomes aware of, it is clear his understanding and memory are incomplete; his written record provides a hold in the unusual reality he finds himself in (and then also beyond it), and ultimately facilitates something of a deeper understanding and a form of release (if not complete escape); even then, however, he understands and admits: "Without the journals I would be all at sea".
       The novel opens in an other-world, a fantastical place that is all that Piranesi (thinks he) knows. It has no connection and little resemblance to the familiar -- to the reader, if not Piranesi -- 'real' world; it is even, in Piranesi's record-keeping, apart from it in time: Piranesi does closely track the passing of time, but the journal entry with which the novel opens is dated: "the first day of the fifth month in the year the albatross came to the South-Western Halls", rather than being grounded in the familiar calendar.
       Piranesi has no real memory of his origin-story -- how he might have gotten here; anything about a family he might have had -- or, indeed, of much of anything past and certainly nothing beyond these, as it were, walls; he lives almost entirely in the present and in what appears to be a self-contained and infinite universe, keeping to the necessary routines to sustain life as well as exploring this world he finds himself in: "I am determined to explore as much of the World as I can in my lifetime".
       The 'World' is an unusual place consisting of hall after hall, an apparently endless expanse. There are three level -- the lower ones lapped by the sea (and the source of the fish and seaweed that makes up his sustenance), the upper one by the clouds; much is also in a state of some ruin, battered by the ravages of time and nature. Tides rise and wash through the halls; among Piranesi's observations and calculations are careful ones so that he knows when and where to expect them, and to prepare accordingly. Each hall contains statues -- and pretty much nothing else. An endless array of statues, in different sizes, of different kinds.
       Beyond the birds and fish, this 'World' is almost entirely lifeless (which makes all those statues -- frozen figures -- even more disturbingly impressive). As Piranesi explains:

     Since the World began it is certain that there have existed fifteen people. Possibly there have been more; but I am a scientist and must proceed according to the evidence. Of the fifteen people whose existence is verifiable, only Myself and the Other are now living.
       The Other is the only human Piranesi has any contact with. The Other, a much older man, is seeking: "a Great and Secret Knowledge hidden somewhere in the World", and twice a week, at set times and for a set period, they get together to discuss their progress in finding it. Beyond their quite limited interaction, Piranesi shows little interest in how the Other experiences the World, even though it seems pretty clear that he is not living there in the same rather basic circumstances that Piranesi is; the Other clearly has access to other useful things -- bringing Piranesi a pair shoes, at one point, for example -- but Piranesi doesn't wonder much about this (or whether the Other even remains in the World when they are apart; to Piranesi anything beyond the World is unimaginable).
       Piranesi knows that thirteen other people have been in the World -- he has, and keeps watch over, their remains. The remains don't, however, provide any answers to the questions Piranesi (and the reader) might have, about the state of the World, or how anyone got there, etc.
       Piranesi also imagines a 'Sixteenth Person' -- the person, he suggests, he is documenting everything in his journal for.
       Piranesi is very meticulous in keeping his written record -- he's on his tenth journal -- and he also has a good system for keeping things organized: he devotes a separate volume to an index of the journals, indexing the entries as he goes along, so that he can go back and check and compare relevant entries. It seems, however, that he hasn't been going back and reading the journals much: early in this account, as he sums up his journal-keeping habits, he realizes that the first two journals are dated differently from the rest: "No. 1 is labelled December 2011 to June 2012", for example -- and he neither remembers doing that ("How could I not have noticed this before ?") nor can he relate '2011' and '2012' to any real period; he imagines he just selected the arbitrary numbers. Instead, of course, it is the first strong hint -- for the reader, if not as obviously for Piranesi -- that there is a connection to another world and time, the real world, as we know it.
       The action in Piranesi then has him slowly being confronted by the actual quality of the reality he inhabits, the what and how and why. One key is the Sixteenth Person -- "'16' for short" --, a being who Piranesi suspects may already be present in the World -- and who: "may have information about the World that we do not". The Other, however, warns Piranesi of any 16 that tries to contact him: "This person -- 16 -- means me harm. 16 is my enemy. And so, by extension, yours, too".
       Piranesi trusts the Other enough that he does respond warily to a changing situation, of other information reaching him and others reaching out to him, including a then-designated 16, but evidence mounts that things are not quite what they seem. Piranesi finds a significant key in his carefully indexed journals, leading him to entries on names and places that he otherwise could not recall.
       The Other had already pointed out what Piranesi hadn't been aware of about himself:
     'You never forget anything about the labyrinth. That is why your contribution to my work is so valuable. But you do forget other things. And, of course, you lose time.'
     'What ?' I said, startled.
     'Time. You're always losing it.'
     'What do you mean ?'
     'You know. You get days and dates wrong.'
     'I do not,' I said, indignant.
     'Yes, you do. It's a bit of a pain, to be honest. My schedule's always so packed. I come to meet you and you're nowhere to be seen because you've lost a day again. I've had to put you right numerous times when your perception of time has got out of sync.'
     'Out of sync with what ?'
     'With me. With everyone else.'
       Piranesi is so shocked by this idea that he doesn't really wonder about the implications of some of the other things the Other mentions here -- not wondering who: "everyone else" might be, for example ... -- but at least it makes him (and the reader) mindful of the fact that his awareness, and especially his recollection, is not entirely reliable. His written record, on the other hand, has closely tracked events, recorded as they happened (and the fact that much that he recorded seems unfamiliar should have been a wake-up call, too). There is that problem of quite a few missing pages in some of the early journals ..... But he begins to piece together information when he begins looking up old entries about specific words and names that have cropped up. A cast of characters emerges -- there are actual names in his journal, he finds -- and much involves a man and his followers interested in transgressive thinking, and just how far it could be pushed -- and their stories begin to suggest and illuminate the nature of the World, and Piranesi's place there.
       Clarke weaves her story quite beautifully -- or rather, unweaves it, beginning with a complete-seeming fantastical world, the 'World' as Piranesi lives it, and then slowly revealing how this World was spun. Lovely, also, in particular, is how she leaves it: even as the character called Piranesi is led out of his labyrinth, he can not entirely escape it, and he clings to some of its threads.
       The World, as Clarke presents it, is a wondrous place, beautifully conceived. Piranesi's (circumstance-appropriate) credulous as well as conscientious voice is pitch-perfect, his journal-entries a thoroughly engaging account of what is a fascinating voyage, especially as Piranesi finds much of his world (World) and how he understands it called into forms of question; Clarke handles his efforts to make sense of the information he receives and his experiences particularly well. As to what is behind the curtain, this too is properly creepily (and creepingly) introduced into the story.
       Shimmering darkly, this is a lovely piece of semi-fantasy, a different spin on world-building (and unraveling) -- a different (or perhaps the perfect) kind of escapist fiction, immersing the reader in an entirely different world that proves not to be so different after all.
       A wonderful ride, beautifully done.

- M.A.Orthofer, 31 August 2020

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Piranesi: Reviews: Susanna Clarke: Other books by Susanna Clarke under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British author Susanna Clarke was born in 1959.

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© 2020-2021 the complete review

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