Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I began this novel with some trepidation, not being particularly keen on the fantasy genre. Yet, when I opened the book, it was to find that Piranesi begins with a quote from The Magician’s Nephew, one of my favourite childhood books (in many ways far superior to The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, but this is not the time to go into that particular rabbit hole). I then began to question my late-onset prejudice against fantasy novels, given that many of my childhood favourites fall squarely into that genre. And as I delved into the book, I realised that actually, I wanted to be swept away into a different world, even if I struggled to understand the parameters of that world or the rules which govern it. And what a world Susanna Clarke has created in this novel.
Rich, vivid, almost soothing, the author depicts the world in which Piranesi lives with masterful artistry. The House, its beauty, its isolation, become real to the reader, as Piranesi takes us through the infinite Kindness of it. Piranesi himself reveals himself gradually. A number of times I had to reset my view of what Piranesi looks like. We know that he is a man, we know that he is thirty years old. But given that the reader views the House through the lens of his eyes, we imagine him to be much younger, and when the author gives us more descriptors of his appearance, especially his hair, my view of him shifting again. Much like the tides that flow through the House, nothing about Piranesi is fixed, his identity fluid, shaped by the environment around him.
The emptiness of the House in part is brought to life through Piranesi’s relationship with the Other, the only other living inhabitant of the House. He has a name, but it is not revealed to Piranesi, so that he, and therefore the reader, see him only as the Other. It is only when Piranesi finds another in the House, a man he calls the Prophet, that I began to wonder if this aspect of the book was an allegory against othering. The Other is an excellent name, the Prophet tells us: “The other. No matter what the situation he is only ever “the other”. Someone else always takes precedence.” That, together with the fact that the book explores the science (for lack of a better word) of ‘transgressive’ thinking, and the issues around individual identity being shaped by the world around us, did give me pause to consider the parallels with identity politics in our world.
I have no idea whether a political allegory of this nature was intended by the author, but whether or not it was intended in many ways is irrelevant. The beauty of this book is that the reader can see what they wish to see – interpret the world Piranesi inhabits, the House, in any way they choose.
This book stays with you – much like the salt from the sea sticks to your skin when you emerge from the ocean. I have now read 5 of the Women’s Prize shortlisted books. It is one of my top two. But I have no idea how the judges are going to pick a winner with such very different novels before them.
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Piranesi by Susanna Clarke