Review: Piranesi

3 out of 5 stars

Two halves of what should have been different books subtract from each other, instead of adding up. Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke

Don’t get me wrong. I understood Piranesi just fine, once Susanna Clarke chose to make that possible. Up until that point, I was interested, if not quite intrigued.

Piranesi is a person, though you don’t learn his name till late in this book. He lives in a huge stone building full of hallways, galleries, staircases, and other passageways. They lead to themselves and other passageways, but for all Piranesi’s years of exploring, counting, and mapping them, they never really go anywhere. The place is empty, except for:

  • Statues – Lots of them, and weird, too, which he uses as both landmarks and to tell himself stories about things he imagines. Or does he remember?
  • Birds – Lots of them. At least it’s company.
  • Water – It fills some areas, floods some others. It’s full of fish and other creatures to eat.
  • One other man – Called, well, The Other. He talks cryptically to Piranesi, and sometimes brings him very modern items (a sleeping bag, shoes, etc.), though Piranesi doesn’t know where these things come from or where The Other goes.

Weird yet? Yah-huh.

The first two-thirds of Piranesi felt like a parable I didn’t grasp. If there’s some philosophical underpinning to his wandering and existing, I didn’t get it. Or really care. I read because it was curious, though never captivated. Clarke’s writing has a melancholy loveliness that matched Piranesi’s futile optimism. But the oddness of his world went on too long with no big reveal. For example, Piranesi documents all his days by which hallways he visited: the 17th hallway from the left of the statue of the pigeon with the pinecone, or whatever. It seemed to want to read as gothic and mysterious, instead it quickly become tired nonsense.

It began to show a little promise as Piranesi interacted with The Other. A mystery was brewing, if very slowly.

SPOILER-ish: Then the story crashes into the world we know, and turns into a crime novel. Now this is the good part! It’s a little existential and cult-y and mystical, but also gritty and scandalous. So if you can make it through the endless, empty hallways of an interminable numbering system, you’ll get somewhere worth going. It just could have been connected to a different, better-suited story.

Overall, I was left feeling as if I both missed the point of Piranesi, and missed out on what could have been a much better crime novel.

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