Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

The premise of Piranesi is that an unreliable narrator (Piranesi) is wandering a maze to help “the Other” find secret knowledge. It’s written as a series of journal entries and before long I knew more than the narrator—not necessarily a problem—but this reveals something about his selective memory: Piranesi forgets whatever might make the book shorter or less mysterious. Once he catches up to the reader, conflicts are resolved quickly and it’s hard to understand why the set-up went on for so very, very long.

Piranesi gets a lot of praise for its world-building and the slow reveal of its labyrinth. The upper floor has clouds, the lowest floor is flooded, and Piranesi spends his time in the middle to monitor the tides, tend to the dead, and map the halls. The thousands of halls are populated by thousands of statues and only Piranesi can find his way through. It’s interesting but not immersive because Piranesi describes daily life in the labyrinth in the driest way possible. For example, there’s a multi-page description of his journals that he has written in his journals. If someone stumbles over his writing, they’ll have the pleasure of reading a description of the book they are holding. Is this a sign of his mental instability? Or a sign that writing organic-sounding journals is difficult? While reading, I thought more frequently about Clarke writing Piranesi than about Piranesi writing his journals.

The premise isn’t a bad one; it’s the execution that doesn’t work for me. While gullible people are allowed to keep journals, “the Other” is so obviously not Piranesi’s friend that certain plot elements are hard to swallow. No matter, though, because the villain is easily dispatched. Momentum into the climax is undercut by the inclusion of over-explained backstories for minor characters. A summary of my reading experience: This is very mysterious > I think I see where this is going > That’s pretty much what I thought > That’s more than I needed to know > Annnnnd it’s over.

A blurb in my edition compares this book to Circe and The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I don’t know why. It doesn’t have the stellar plot and character development of Circe, to which I gave five stars. I don’t love The Ocean at the End of the Lane—it’s light on Gaiman’s usual magic—but it’s a far richer and more moving story than Piranesi.

I understand what Piranesi was trying to do, and I like the philosophical ideas it tries to tackle, but the final product doesn’t work for me.

Overall: 2.4 (out of 5.0) An interesting idea and a lukewarm story.

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