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Book review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

PIRANESI by Susanna Clarke. Bloomsbury Publications.

If you have read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, the author`s first — astonishing — book, then you will crack open the pages of Piranesi with much anticipation.

And you will read of a House (the capital H is necessary for a place of this magnitude) made largely up of halls, halls and more halls. Each hall is festooned with the most ornate statues, some life-sized, some monstrously huge, all of them fantastical. And ever so often, the sea comes tearing in, flooding the halls, drenching the statues.

And here wanders our protagonist Piranesi…he`s almost certain that’s not his name, only he can`t remember his name. He leads the most secluded life ever in this House with only the occasional meetings with a fellow human being, the Other. And here`s the thing, he appears to be quite alright living this unusual life.

And then one day, yet another human being arrives in the House, and Piranesi`s life is turned upside down.

Right up to well past the halfway mark, Clarke keeps the reader in a bemused frame of mind, watching Piranesi do his rounds, trying to read allegorical meanings in the giant statues (Woman carrying a Beehive, the Elephant carrying a Castle) he is engaged in cataloguing, trying not to be irked by the conceit of sentences with many capital letters (Last Seen in God of Small Things) and wondering what all this is leading up to. Then the story turns suddenly, and that turn is imbued with all of Clarke`s craft and yes, magical way with words.

Piranesi is a painting in words, a magical mystery tour of the pysche, a quest for Old knowledge abandoned for the New. The writing isn’t obscure, the meanings initially are till they flip and reveal what they have been concealing.

A story of a recluse, a story of magic, a story of oppressors and victims, a story of humankind. And in case you are wondering, vestiges of that other book Jonathan Strange find their way into this book, in the fierce competition between two people who wield alchemy powerfully,  as well as in the concept of people and things trapped in time and labyrinths holding revelation and horror in them.



alchemybook reviewJonathan Strange and Mr NorrellmagicPiranesistudy of the human psycheSusanna Clarke

Sheila Kumar • December 23, 2020

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