Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke – Unravelling the Mysteries of the House

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

“Piranesi” by Susanna Clarke is a fascinating novel from 2020 that takes readers on a mesmerizing journey through an otherworldly labyrinth. This book is a departure from Clarke’s previous work, “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell,” but it is equally enchanting and immersive. The story follows the titular character, Piranesi, as he navigates an endless maze of grand halls and corridors, all while keeping meticulous records of the mysterious world around him. The novel is a masterful work of imagination, full of wonder, mystery, and subtle layers of meaning. In this review, we will delve deeper into the intricacies of Clarke’s storytelling, exploring the themes, characters, and world-building that make “Piranesi” a truly unique and unforgettable read.

Susanna Clarke is a celebrated author known for her unique blend of historical fiction, fantasy, and literary fiction. Her debut novel, “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell,” was a bestseller and won numerous awards, including the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. Like “Piranesi,” “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell” was praised for its inventive world-building and complex characters.

The Premise of Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

The atmospheric novel follows the story of the eponymous Piranesi, a man who lives alone in a vast place that he calls the House. The House is dotted with countless halls, rooms, and staircases that seem to shift and change at will, and Piranesi spends his days exploring and mapping its many twists and turns.

As he roams the House, Piranesi encounters a few other people, including “the Other,” a mysterious and enigmatic figure who seems to know more about the House than Piranesi himself. Together, they begin to unravel the secrets of the House and its true nature, which is far more complex and unsettling than Piranesi could have ever imagined.

As Piranesi delves deeper into the mysteries of the House, he starts uncovering the truth about his past and the events that led him to his current existence. In doing so, he must confront the very fabric of his reality and the limits of his own understanding of the world around him.

Piranesi’s Relationship with The Other in the Book

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

In “Piranesi,” the titular character’s interactions with the Other form a crucial aspect of the story. At the beginning of the novel, Piranesi believes himself to be the only person living in the vast, labyrinthine House, which he has spent years exploring and mapping. However, he soon discovers that another person is living in the House as well – a man he refers to as the Other.

Initially, Piranesi is overjoyed to have discovered another human being and eagerly shares his knowledge of the House with the Other. However, it soon becomes clear that the Other has a hidden agenda; he may not be entirely trustworthy. He claims to be a friend of Piranesi’s and offers to help him uncover the secrets of the House, but he is also manipulative and keeps many secrets from Piranesi.

As the story progresses, Piranesi begins questioning the Other’s motives and wonders if he can truly trust him. He becomes increasingly aware of the power dynamics at play in their relationship, as the Other seems to hold all the knowledge and information about the House that Piranesi lacks.

Once, Piranesi asks the Other about a mysterious statue he has seen in one of the House’s many rooms. The Other refuses to answer his questions, telling him that he doesn’t need to know everything about the House. Piranesi becomes frustrated and wonders if the Other is hiding something from him. He also realizes that he is entirely dependent on the Other for information about the House and its workings. This leads him to question whether he can trust the Other and his safety in the House.

Despite these tensions, Piranesi and the Other continue to work together to unravel the mysteries of the House. Their interactions are often fraught with tension and unease as Piranesi struggles to understand the Other’s true intentions. Ultimately, their relationship plays a pivotal role in the novel’s surprising and emotionally resonant conclusion.

The Symbolism of The House

The House serves as the setting and the driving force behind the story. Its labyrinthine structure and mysterious properties imbue the novel with an atmosphere of wonder and unease. The House is a rich source of symbolism, representing a plethora of themes essential to the novel’s meaning and impact.

One of the most prominent symbolic interpretations of the House is that it represents the human mind. Like the mind, the House is vast, complex, and full of hidden chambers and secrets. Piranesi’s exploration of the House is akin to a journey through the recesses of the human psyche, with each room and hallway representing a different aspect of the self. The House’s ability to shift and change form also reflects the mercurial nature of the human mind and how our perceptions of reality can be altered by our thoughts and emotions.

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Another symbolic interpretation of the House is that it represents life’s search for meaning and purpose. Piranesi’s quest to unravel the secrets of the House mirrors the human desire to understand the mysteries of the universe and to find our place within it. The House’s ultimate revelation represents a profound realization for Piranesi, one that has the power to transform his entire worldview and understanding of himself.

The House can also be interpreted as a symbol of the infinite, representing the limitless possibilities and potentialities of the universe. The House’s endless corridors and twisting passages suggest that there is always something new to discover and that our quest for knowledge and understanding will never be truly complete.

Influence of Gothic Literature on the Setting

Gothic literature is a genre of fiction that originated in the middle of the 18th century and is characterized by elements of horror, mystery, and the supernatural. It often features dark, atmospheric settings such as crumbling castles, haunted houses, and ancient ruins and typically includes themes of madness, death, and decay. The genre has evolved over time and continues to be influential in contemporary literature, film, and popular culture.

In Pranesi, firstly, the House, with its expansive hallways, maze-like corridors, and dark, dim setting, evokes the sense of old mansions in Gothic literature. Additionally, “Piranesi” features a cast of characters reminiscent of Gothic archetypes. The novel’s eponymous protagonist, for example, is a solitary figure who spends his days exploring the House and recording his discoveries in meticulous detail. His isolation and obsession with the House echo the Gothic trope of the mad scientist or reclusive scholar who becomes consumed by their quest for knowledge. In “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley, a popular example of Gothic literature, a scientist named Victor Frankenstein creates a monster through his scientific experiments. Similarly, in “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” by Robert Louis Stevenson, the story outlines a scientist named Dr. Henry Jekyll who experiments with a potion that can separate his good and evil selves.

Another Gothic element of “Piranesi” is the presence of the Other, a mysterious and often malevolent force that inhabits the House. The Other is a figure of darkness and chaos, and its relationship with Piranesi is reminiscent of the master-servant dynamic common in Gothic literature, just like the relationship between Frankenstein and his monster is often interpreted as a master-servant dynamic. The Other’s influence over Piranesi is a key source of tension in the novel, and its eventual revelation has profound implications for both the protagonist and the reader.

Why Should You Read ‘Piranesi’?

At its core, “Piranesi” is a story about the power of perception and the limits of human understanding.

Piranesi’s perception of the world around him is constantly being challenged and reshaped. He lives in a vast House filled with endless halls and rooms, and he has to navigate it using his own unique understanding of its layout. As Piranesi discovers more about the House and the truth behind his existence, he begins to question the very nature of reality and his place in it. He discovers that his perception of himself and the world around him is not entirely accurate and that there are forces at play that he does not fully understand.

Thus, the novel encourages readers to question their own versions of reality and challenge their mental boundaries. It illustrates how our perception of the world is limited by our own experiences and the knowledge we have gained and how our perceptions can be shaped and distorted by external forces.

One of the most striking aspects of the novel is Clarke’s vivid and immersive world-building. The House is a structure filled with grand halls, twisting staircases, and hidden secrets, and Clarke’s descriptions of its many rooms and corridors are both beautiful and haunting. The author’s attention to detail creates a rich and fully-realized world that feels both alien and familiar.

Clarke’s writing is characterized by its lush prose, intricate plotting, and attention to historical detail. Her work often explores themes of power, identity, and the nature of reality, and her stories are both intellectually stimulating and emotionally resonant. Pranesi’s perception of the world is constantly being reshaped and challenged. The story is intellectually stimulating due to its complex narrative structure and philosophical questions while being emotionally resonant due to the character of Piranesi and its exploration of themes such as isolation, trauma, and self-discovery. 

In “Piranesi,” Clarke has created a work of art that defies easy categorization. The novel is a haunting and unforgettable exploration of the human psyche, and it cements Clarke’s place as one of the most inventive and accomplished writers of our time.


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