Book Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
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There are strange books without any rhyme or reason; just to tickle your senses and appeal to your sense of the bizarre. I personally feel Haruki Murakami is one such author, for the events in his books hold no connection to the concept of cause and effect. But he manages to hold your attention nevertheless. And then there are strange books with a lesson. A lesson that will take some time to make itself known to you, but when it does, it will burrow into your mind and make its home there. Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi is one such book.
Coming 16 years after Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke’s second novel employs an interesting concept of how us human beings see ourselves and the world. There’s magic, reflection, nature, beauty, ideas, different schools of thoughts, innocence, evil, and a whole lot more that will make you glad to have discovered this book even if it confuses you to the very end. For in the world we are living in, perhaps, sometimes, weirdness is what is most needed.
Our main character, who is called Piranesi, lives in an Enchanted House who is in awe of. He knows every Hall, path, living creature, statue, the tides, and the air that live in the House, given the time that he has spent here. To him, each of these is a living, breathing thing that speaks to him in ways that only he can explain. The size of the House does not intimidate him, for he has made this labyrinth of Halls his own. Piranesi has weekly meetings with the only other living inhabitant of this House, who he calls the Other and who gave him the name he now goes by. The Other is in search of the Great and Secret Knowledge, for which he enlists Piranesi’s help.
But soon, Piranesi’s knowledge of everything living and dead, and reality and otherworldly are about to be tested when he finds signs of other people moving through the Halls. He has to persevere to find out what is true and if everything he has known in his current consciousness has been a lie. If it has, who has been lying to him?
Piranesi starts off slow and confusing, in a manner that belies the twists that are making their way to you as you turn the pages. Given how hard I was squinting in the first 40-odd pages, I can now see frown lines between my eyebrows and am now constantly smoothing them down! The weight that Piranesi holds – be it related to the lust for power and ambition, or for the struggle to realize one’s own identity – will do that to you. It will sit on your shoulders and hammer away at your brain, pushing, pushing, pushing you to that final brink and then letting loose as you fall into that abyss of understanding.
The name ‘Piranesi’ fits the main character like a glove. Being named after Giovanni Battista Piranesi, an Italian architect and archaeologist, somehow brings the similarities between the Classical artist and the main character of this book into stark relief. These were why the author got the Other to name him ‘Piranesi’ and given the theme resounding throughout the book, of Statues and architecture and atmospheric thinking manifesting itself in our surrounding reality, it makes perfect sense.
Susanna Clarke’s storytelling resonates tremendously with you, making you wonder about what you read and if you understand it; if you will ever understand it. It feels, sometimes, like the true meaning is just out of reach. But delve deep into your psyche, ask yourself, and you will find that Susanna Clarke has instilled things in you without your own knowledge, and you have known all along that somewhere, somehow, you have become Piranesi himself. You begin to crave for a place that you don’t know, but growing to love it because your understanding that appreciation of what is around you, has begun to sprout wings. It’s a strange feeling, for sure, but one that you will come to cherish by the time you turn that last page.
This is a book for which my feelings cannot be classified into black or white. The elegant mix of the prose, the plot, and the concept makes for a wonderful swirl of different colors that you need to experience for yourself. Look, it’s making me write a poetic review! (Is it though?)
But have patience while you get through it, and you will enjoy the familiarity that Piranesi will bring to you through a story and a concept that is as alien as can be from your regular fare. It’s going to be worth it!
Do read a review of Piranesi on Washington Post by Ron Charles
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