Book review – Piranesi by Susanne Clarke

Thoroughly enjoyed this enchanting and compact novel that I read in one sitting.

As the eloquent narrator drew me deeper into a surreal labyrinth-like world filled with opulent halls lined with sculptures and a self-sustaining atmosphere, I gave up grasping at themes to pin down what this novel was about.

A post-apocalyptic adventure, a research project, a philosophical journey, allegorical, metaphor…what was it?

And the genre…Was it fantasy, magic-realism, science-fiction, mysticism,  psychological thriller, surrealism, crime suspense, … As I neared the end of the mind-bending refreshing story, I realised it is one of those rare ones that cannot be slotted into any one or more genres.

It flows with gentle unpredictability and while the nature of the novel might not appeal to all readers, it can be quite an entrancing read if it clicks with your mood and interest.

The setting for the novel is a grand sprawling house surrounded by the sea waters, that is continuously explored and revealed through the eyes of its inhabitant and narrator as an elaborate sprawling classical architectural marvel reminiscent of the artistic splendour of renaissance era. A magnificent and house that stretches endlessly filled with successive vast marble halls lined with striking statues depicting humans and scenes from mythology and nature. A majestic abode spread across countless halls connected with vestibules, spanning multiple floors,  accessible via staircases, with the sea water lapping the lower floors and clouds occupying the upper floors.  It is a house that alludes to the etchings of imaginary prisons of architectural brilliance by 18th century Italian architect Piranesi. It is a bountiful place considered to be synonymous with the ‘World’ by the child-like inquisitive narrator who believes himself to be the ‘beloved child of the house’. The narrator who has no recollection of how he came to be in the house, leads a simple but illustrious life. His days are filled with collecting seaweeds and fishing to sustain himself physically, offering food and water lilies to the dead signified by the bones of thirteen individuals he found in the house, communing with the statues and birds, while he journals and chronicles the events of the day and catalogues the statues and halls and directions in painstaking detail. As we are offered a view of the place through his eyes, as well as witness his interactions with the birds and statues, endearing traits of the narrator like empathy, compassion, reasoning power, innocence become apparent.

The only other human inhabitant he knows of is the older distinguished looking man he refers to as ‘The Other’ who in turn mockingly addresses the narrator as Piranesi. Piranesi briefly meets ‘The Other’ twice in a week to assist the latter in his search for ‘the great and secret knowledge’, while ‘The Other’ gifts him with multivitamins tablets, and other supplies like shoes, bowls, stationary… things that initially strike a discordant note with the ambience and perceived timeline of the setting. Halfway through the book some developments arise that include Piranesi meeting other new persons in previously unexplored parts of the house, leading to some unexpected discoveries followed by a startling revelation.

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