Piranesi by Susana Clarke

Reviewed by David Starkey

On some level, every novel is about its protagonist’s journey to find out who they really are, although Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi follows that pattern more literally than most novels. 

The eighteenth-century Italian artist and architect Giambattista Piranesi was famous for his etchings of elaborate imaginary prisons, but the titular narrator actually inhabits one of those prisons, a vast building lined with statues in rooms with names like the Eighteenth North-Western Hall. The most important room, however, is the Vestibule, where the only other living person, the Other, appears twice a week to learn more about Piranesi’s latest discoveries in “The House.”

That’s the novel’s very intriguing set-up, and while it begins in a world swathed in mystery, it’s not long before Piranesi begins to uncover a string of increasingly unpalatable truths about the House and himself. Indeed, one of the main pleasures of this novel for those, like me, who aren’t particularly enamored of fantasy is how briskly Piranesi moves along and how satisfying are the reveals, as unlikely some of them are.

It’s difficult to say a lot more about the novel without giving too much away, but this is a striking book that should satisfy the many fans of Clarke’s mammoth Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, especially those who longed to have its hefty dose of magic delivered with more narrative urgency.