Bite-size Books: Piranesi

Book cover: Piranesi - Susanna ClarkeA young scholar explores and documents the House, an endless palace of vestibules, halls and statues lapped by ceaseless tides. As he tries to makes sense of his world, he finds himself increasingly driven to keep secrets from the Other. Does his only friend – the only other living person in the House – really have Piranesi’s best interests at heart?

Full disclosure: I hated Jonathan Strange and Doctor Norrell. I used to force finish books back then – these days, I would no doubt tap out early rather than end up with a long-standing grudge based on hours of resentful reading about the bickering of two arrogant men I didn’t care about.

Arguably, Piranesi is another fantasy of arrogant men bickering about points of principle, but – thankfully – this largely happens off-page (and neither of them are Piranesi). What Clarke delivers instead is an often odd, sometimes naive, always charming account of a young man’s attempt to catalogue his world. Piranesi – not his real name, although he’s happy to let his only friend call him by it – styles himself a scholar and a scientist, in spite of his ragged state and tendency to deduce ‘facts’ from the flights of birds and the gaze of statues.

It’s clear from the start that Piranesi probably isn’t a reliable guide to the House. Along with his seventeenth century natural philosophy, he casually mentions incongruently modern things like crisp packets and fish fingers (whilst being baffled by place names and concepts such as university or the police). The Other – clearly living a rather different life in the same space – appears to have access to a mobile device (although Piranesi doesn’t recognise it as such).

There were enough questions implicit in the narrative to snare my curiosity. Besides, I love a bit of fantasy science, so Piranesi’s idiosyncratic calendar system and his lists of statues didn’t put me off, although this was largely because they were being read to me by the rich tones of Chiwetel Ejiofor; I’m not sure I’d have so blithely navigated them – or the errant and inaudible Capitalisation of Nouns – in print.

As the story unfolds, we’re invited to consider philosophy, the nature of the House (rich in allusion) and the mystery of Piranesi’s identity. But when Piranesi rejects the Other’s search for Knowledge – deciding that to unpick the House’s secrets would be to devalue the House, whose faithful and beloved Child he is – it’s hard not to read his decision as meta commentary on puzzle box narratives. Piranesi is itself just such a narrative, of course; making this a tacit challenge to the reader. Do you read to work out the answers or to enjoy the experience?

My answer would usually be both – I can’t resist a good puzzle – but Piranesi is a rare book in which the answer was simply the latter. I don’t easily absorb quantities of detail unless I read with my eyes, and while I wasn’t certain how important all these details about the House would turn out to be (did I need to have a mental map of its Halls and Vestibules?) I was willing to take the risk. Instead, I enjoyed it as a leisurely listen – this is a book of ideas and mirrors and, I suspected at one point, possibly the Emperor’s new clothes – so I just took it as it came (and for the record: no, you don’t need a map, or to identify the Dead).

For the longest time, I wasn’t certain whether I was listening to a portal fantasy or a time travel narrative – and I still remain uncertain how to interpret it as an homage to The Magician’s Nephew. Likewise, it touches on so many topics – subjective reality, ethics, mental health, our relationship and obligation to the world around us – that there’s endless room for thought and reflection along the way. But while there’s much to be gained from unpacking the many references and implications, Piranesi is just as delightful taken at face value.

Those who prefer straightforward narratives in a modern voice may find Piranesi frustrating and opaque, but I thoroughly enjoyed it as a change of pace.