As you may know, Susanna Clarke, author of "Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell" has just released a new book called "Piranesi".
I finished reading it last night. Before I go look for reviews and other opinions, I'm going to put down my thoughts.
Non-spoilery version: I really enjoyed it! It was a very good read and a real page-turner.
Spoilery version under the cut.
First things first. This novel was not at all what I was expecting. Clarke's previous works have all been some kind of historical pastiche. Because of the name of this volume and the setting, I had assumed it would be 18th Century and based on the artist Piranesi. But it was not! For the first couple of chapters I was reading 18th Century into it but then I came across the Family Circle biscuit tin and thought... huh. A couple more chapters and we're clear that this is modern day.
Now, I adore Clarke's pastiche and the humour she instills it with. That doesn't mean I enjoyed this book any the less for its not having them. It is written so well that you can't help but enjoy it. But I think the lack of those and the fact that it's a short story is why I can see myself not reaching absolute crazy levels of adoration for it. (Because my love for Strange and Norrell is very much absolute crazy levels of adoration.)
Despite the lack of pastiche, there is so much wonderfulness in the book to mark it out as Clarke's work. The fantasy setting of the house, with all its rooms, statues and birds is pure Clarke. I don't think it could have come from anyone else's brain. And thematically you've got a lost historical world that has returned in the present, with the world around us developing meaning because of it. The birds are a writing in the sky if we only know how to read it.
And the writing itself: the skill she has at composing a story is amazing. I love the fact that it's told through diary entries so you never know exactly what is going on. Instead you have to piece it together from what you're told. And the fact that each chapter brings more revelations about the world, about the past, about the plot. It feels like you're a detective, uncovering more and more as you go on. That's exactly the feel I got from Strange and Norrell too: that you're actually doing research into this complex world and that a big, important revelation will happen if you only read far enough. It's very very clever. This is a master who knows what they're doing. Books that make you this eager to keep turning the page are rare.
Character-wise I adored Piranesi, the narrator. The more you read the more you come to love him. He is just so precious! Very wide-eyed and innocent and earnest. It's adorable! And I was quite happy to follow his adventures.
But I think it was this love of Piranesi that left the ending feeling a little flat to me. I am very interested to know what other people make of the ending, because I can see it growing on me the more I come to understand it. But from a first read, after the building building excitement of the rest of the book, the ending is a disappointment. The revelations are gone, the building tension is gone, and (hardest to bear) Piranesi is gone. It felt very melancholy. Perhaps it is meant to be a happy ending, but it doesn't feel that way.
However, those building tensions and building revelations that fall a little flat at the end are exactly what I found in Strange and Norrell too. So even in this it is very easy to see that "Piranesi" is Clarke's work. (I am so familiar with the ending of Strange and Norrell now that it is hard to remember that on a first read I found the ending a little lacklustre.)
In conclusion, regardless of the ending, I found "Piranesi" a great book. The imagery of the House is going to stay with me for a long time and the clever way the plot unfurls deserves nothing but the highest praise. If you are somehow reading this review without having read the book, then go get a copy and read it!
Comment from: Emma [Visitor]
I’m really happy you enjoyed Piranesi! I wasn’t quite as fond of it, myself — I thought it was very interesting and weird and of course beautifully-written (it is Clarke we’re talking about), but some parts left me a little confused. Other things I can’t decide on; like, on the one hand, (in the US, at least) there’s such a terrible, racist history of black men being depicted as simple-minded and unintelligent and easy for white men to manipulate, and I thought there were echoes of that stereotype in Piranesi himself… but on the other hand, Piranesi could be seen as a child of the divine, and not “simple” so much as “sacred,” and that’s a very cool thing to relate to a black male character. So it’s a book I have complex and conflicted feelings about. I’ve read it about nine times, and I have a different reaction to it every time I finish it, lol.
And thematically you’ve got a lost historical world that has returned in the present, with the world around us developing meaning because of it. The birds are a writing in the sky if we only know how to read it.
Yes, this part 100%.
But from a first read, after the building building excitement of the rest of the book, the ending is a disappointment. The revelations are gone, the building tension is gone, and (hardest to bear) Piranesi is gone. It felt very melancholy. Perhaps it is meant to be a happy ending, but it doesn’t feel that way.
I really liked Piranesi’s “composite self” at the end; that he developed many layers of identity that inter-related to each other, not unlike the House itself. And I think we were supposed to feel at least a little melancholy about that — he does go and contact poor James Ritter, and offer to help him return to the House. I think the implication is that Sorensen/Piranesi will go back one day, too, and never return. Which is also melancholy!
I am so familiar with the ending of Strange and Norrell now that it is hard to remember that on a first read I found the ending a little lacklustre.
I wept so hard at the end of Strange & Norrell that I made myself ill. Or, actually, not at the “end” end — the part where Uskglass returns, Stephen leaves, the Gentleman is killed, and Arabella & Emma are disenchanted. The “end” end was just a tying-up of plot threads. I didn’t have such a visceral connection to Piranesi, though. In fact, I often struggled to have any connection with it at all. For all of its beauty and intrigue, it was just kind of there for me. I kept looking at various elements of the narrative at a distance, instead of getting involved “personally.” If that makes sense? I liked it, but I had problems loving it.
I still think it was one of the most interesting novels published in the last decade, and I would also recommend it to anybody who loves fiction. Very interesting to read your take on it! (I hope you review some other books here, too. I love your review posts almost as much as your FOOD POSTS.) Thank you for posting about it!!!
Comment from: [Member]
It’s great to read your thoughts!
I can understand the not having a connection to “Piranesi". It was a fun read, but I don’t now feel like I am there or like it has become part of me. (Whereas with JSMN I very much felt like I stepped into the world of the book and never really left again.) I wonder if this is because “Piranesi” is shorter and so can do less. It does what it sets out to do, which is tell this particular plot, but it doesn’t get time to stretch its wings and become immersive.
It’s very interesting to read your thoughts about Piranesi falling into stereotypes of simple black men. You’re right: even though he is written as an intelligent scientist (mathematician?) he’s also very naive and gullible. I don’t think Clarke was attempting to write unfortunate stereotypes, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she managed it without meaning to.
But also yes about Piranesi being sacred. It’s almost as if, at the end, he has ascended to a higher sphere and has become a conduit that links the House and the real world together. (I actually love the thought that not-Piranesi/not-Matthew will return to the House one day for good; it feels like a positive thing for him to return, of his own free will, to the place that holds his heart.)
I think I have partially worked out why I struggle with the ending. The first reason is that while I like the idea of Piranesi/Matthew’s composite self, we barely know him; he’s introduced and then he’s gone. I would like it a lot more if we were given some more chapters for the composite self to bed down. The second is that I read the version of the book with the extra interviews at the end; this meant that I didn’t realise that the final chapter was the final chapter. If I had realised that it was the end, I might have given it more weight when I read it rather than zooming ahead to try to find out what happens next. I am currently on my second read-through so I’ll see how I feel about the ending this time round.
Thanks for being kind about my review posts! I’ll have to see if anything else catches my attention enough to review it. In the meantime, things have happened with chicken legs this week, so hopefully there’ll be a food post before the year is out.
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