Review: Piranesi – Susanna Clarke

I went to get this book the day my car died. I drove into Hudson to pick it up from Spotty Dog Books & Ale, then realised they had changed hours due to Covid. The car had been a little rough starting and it nearly didn’t start at all when I tried to leave my parking spot. Later when I wondered whether to try again, it wouldn’t even turn over.

The next day I went to the dealer to lease a brand new car (my first ever though my ship has not come in), and the day after that I finally picked up Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi. I am so enamoured of her other work, it was going to be a struggle not to read it immediately and too fast. Fortunately it’s a book that persuades you not to rush — you’ll note I have not rushed to review it, as it came out in September, but instead let it drift in my brain for a while as I try to articulate why I enjoyed it so much and why it is the ideal read for this time of suspended lives, death, and unexpected and expected terrors.

If I say it’s languorous, that might be misinterpreted as slowly paced. It is slowly paced, allowing a strange world to unfold in its details without hurry, but it is languorous because it beholds those details with the love and care. The protagonist tends to his tasks in the enormous, seemingly infinite rooms of the house, learning its ways and musing about the possibilities that lay beyond the world he knows. He names the statues he finds and tenderly preserves the remains of those who have died in the house. He writes down his impressions, though fearing he is alone save for The Other who sometimes appears, for the habit of writing is the habit of ordering one’s thoughts, working through the questions that naturally arise from experience.

Is it disrespectful to the House to love some Statues more than others? I sometimes ask Myself this question. It is my belief that the House itself loves and blesses equally everything that it has created. Should I try to do the same? Yet at the same time, I can see that it is the nature of men to prefer one thing to another, to find one thing more meaningful than another.

If you know the historical Piranesi, and his interest in drawing both ancient architecture and imaginative prisons, you may guess that there is a reason for the tone of melancholy, though I suspect you will not anticipate all that will be uncovered. While the modern, if strange, world of the book initially seems lightyears away from that of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, many of the same issues arise for dissection: the nature of time and existence, the signs and portents of the natural world and even a little magic.

And who would not long to be comforted in the arms of the Faun, his favourite statue? When inconvenient truths rock his world and sanity, he finds solace there:

I climbed up on to his Plinth and flung Myself into his Arms, wrapping my arm around his Neck, intertwining my fingers with his Fingers. Safe in his embrace, I wept for my lost Sanity. Great, heaving sobs rose up, almost painfully, from my chest.

Hush! he told me. Be comforted!

I think you will enjoy spending time in this world, unwrapping many of its mysteries and knowing there are always more. The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.

As I write this, my little Faun has arrived: a museum replica from Pompeii. Long live the Faun!

A small Faun in front of the box he arrived safely packed inside, with a pencil that reads Verba Volant, Scripta Manent!
First plate in the first edition of Piranesi’s Le Carceri d’Invenzione