Book Reviews

Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke


“Piranesi is a tenebrous study in solitude.” 

Paraic O’Donnell in the Guardian

Definition of tenebrous

1 : shut off from the light : dark, murky tenebrous depths 2 : hard to understand : obscure a tenebrous affair 3 : causing gloom

My Interest

I stumbled upon this book–which, by the sound of it should be way outside my comfort zone, at Eric Karl Anderson‘s Youtube channel. (I think it was the first and last name that did it–I was once crazy in love with a guy with that name, albeit not this one]. I think I found him via Twitter. My first time watching him and he got me to read a “way out there” book! He mentions the person cataloging the contents of this huge, fantasy-ridden house. I wanted to read it instantly, fantasy, or no fantasy elements.

(It is the first book reviewed)

Amazon says it is “an intoxicating, hypnotic new novel set in a dreamlike alternative reality” which, for once, is true! Chiwetel Ejiofor’s reading of the story was wonderfully hypnotic and dreamy. I listened to it mostly in small doses as a soothing bedtime story at first. Then I was hooked and wanted to know the outcome. I became obsessed.

The Story

“Entry for the 8th day of the 8th month of the year the albatross came to the Southwest halls.

It is my practice to index my journal entries every other week or so. I find this is more efficient than indexing them straight away. After some time has passed it is easier to separate the important from the ephemeral. This morning…I sat down…with my journal and index. A great deal has happened since I last performed this task. I made an entry into the index:

Prophet, appearance of.

Journal #10, page 148-152

I made another entry:

Prophecies concerning the coming of Sixteen….”

[I listened to the audio, so punctuation may be a little off.]

The story is set in a strange, unending house with so many corridors and statuses and even a captive ocean.  One man spends his life exploring the place and compiling the journals/catalogs of its contents. It was the journals and indexing that caught my attention–the rest sounded like fantasy and I rarely enjoy that. This time I did!

My Thoughts

At first, to make sense of it, all I could do was to sing to myself :

It’s a big, big house

With lots and lots of room

A big, big table

With lots and lots of food

A big, big yard

Where we can play football

A big, big house

It’s my father’s house

(Ziyu Lu–see below)

Gradually I began to understand a little of the story. The keeping of meticulous notebooks–the cataloging and indexing that had initially caught my attention kept nagging at me. I wanted to know about those notebooks. I wanted these journals to be a bit like a grown-up version of Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You crossed with, say, an outstanding guide to Harewood House. That would be utterly fascinating for a fantasy world! In time, I began to see the “house,” to “know” the corridors, and to understand the Year the Albatross Came to the Southwest Corridor.

Piranesi, as our narrator is known, seemed to be telling me of an alternate world. But, was this really not an alternative world but a re-telling, with a few digressions, of the story of creation? I keep having that feeling. The unending-ness of the “house,” the ocean, (he devised his own method of predicting the tides) all seemed to signal that. But then he talked of a crime and a few other events. No, I thought—not a creation re-telling. Hmmmm. I couldn’t get a real grasp of the story until the end. Aha! came at the end. To say more would be to write unfortunately spoilers.

No matter whether I could put all the pieces together or not, it was such a wonderful, soothing story to listen to! Piranesi himself seemed so sweet, so gentle. I thought of Mr. Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe due to both the tone in which he was written and the tone in which the reader, Chiwetel Ejiofor, voiced him. Plus, who wouldn’t love a journaler/indexer/cataloger who uses “see also” notes?

I am NOT a fantasy reader, but this one delighted me. It deserves all the praise it is getting, though I imagine a movie of it would be too creepy for me!

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke


10 thoughts on “Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

  1. Good to hear that this turned out an enjoyable read. I have read her Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell which I liked (quite a lot yet not as much as some of my friends did), and have been wondering about this one since I heard about it,

    Liked by 1 person

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