We believers have waited a long time for a second novel from Clarke, and so it’s especially exciting to see that none of her enchantment has worn off—it’s evolved. Reading her lithe new book, Piranesi, feels like finding a copy of Steven Millhauser’s Martin Dressler in the back of C.S. Lewis’s wardrobe ... The hypnotic quality of Piranesi stems largely from how majestically Clarke conjures up this surreal House ... an unusually fragile mystery—as delicate as the slender fingers and wispy petals on the marble statues that fill the House. Clarke’s power certainly extends beyond mere suspense, but her story relies on the steady accretion of apprehension that finally gives way to a base-shifting revelation. Until you read the book yourself, keep your wand drawn to ward off the summaries of enthusiastic fans and clumsy reviewers. I promise to tread carefully here ... Perhaps Clarke’s cleverest move in this infinitely clever novel is the way she critiques our obliterating efforts to extract deeper meaning and greater value from everything in our world ... This is the abiding magic of Clarke’s novel: We’re as likely to pity Piranesi for his cheerful acceptance of imprisonment as we are to envy him for his ready appreciation of the world as he finds it. Clarke conceived of this story long before the coronavirus pandemic, but tragedy has made Piranesi resonate with a planet in quarantine. To abide in these pages is to find oneself happily detained in awe.
The page-turning thrill of Piranesi is watching him puzzle out what we can already see, and guilelessly wander into danger ... Some books arrive dusted with the shimmer of literary myth. Piranesi is one of them ... There is something intoxicating about Clarke’s joyful castaway, a character so unencumbered by the weight of identity and ego. In another author’s hands his naivety might be stifling, but Piranesi seems more free in his crumbling prison than we are in our worldliness. When the winter wind lashes him with snow, he seeks out its beauty ... When the ferocious tides hurl him against the walls, he is grateful the statues are there to catch him. Even the presence of the dead is consolatory ... But the chief joy of Piranesi is that it is a space with limitless room in which the reader may roam, and no signposts – a grand metaphor, perhaps, for the act of fiction-writing.
... the sweetness, the innocence of Piranesi's love for this world is devastating to read. Clarke's writing is clear, sharp — she can cleave your heart in a few short words. In these brief but gut-wrenchingly tender interactions we are felled by the loneliness Piranesi can't fully grasp. The concept is gone from his mind of what he longs for the most ... This crossing of realms — the magical and scientific; the mystical and profane — in both Jonathan Strange and Piranesi is an alluring combination. As if Marie Curie meets Cleopatra on Mary Anning's beach. The mystery of Piranesi unwinds at a tantalizing yet lightening-like pace — it's hard not to rush ahead, even when each sentence, each revelation makes you want to linger ... Humans seek connection and knowledge — but how do we define those quests? How do we approach those paths? Both worlds in this enthralling, transcendent novel come with magic and reason, beauty and warmth, danger and destruction. However ill-gotten, Piranesi has achieved an equilibrium, a delicate peace with the contradictions of pain and love. How do we do the same? How do we bear the pain of our limits, and what must we give up to survive?
... spellbinding ... Fans have eagerly waited 16 years for Clarke’s follow-up. News of a new book finally broke last September and the hype rocketed to literary heights...Could Piranesi match it? I’m delighted to say it has, with Clarke’s singular wit and imagination still intact in a far more compressed yet still captivating tale you’ll want to delve into again right after you read its sublime last sentence ... Much of the pleasure of reading Piranesi derives from Piranesi himself, the charming if rather naive waif who narrates the novel via journal entries under an invented event-based calendar ... The story takes all manner of bizarre twists and thrilling turns from there — neo-pagan academics, a Flood, and gunfire all make an appearance — but I wouldn’t want to spoil the fun. Admirers of Jonathan Strange will surely enjoy Clarke’s continued penchant for vivid world building where something supernatural could appear around any corner. However, it’s the non-magical moments that linger the longest in Piranesi.
I found myself pulled along as much by Piranesi’s voice — sweet, earnest, passionate — as by a desire to puzzle out what genre I was in. Was this a play on C. S. Lewis’s city of Charn, or a postapocalyptic novel set in the remains of the London Underground? ... The mystery unspools through Piranesi’s labyrinth and journals, and its resolution flooded me, as the tides flood the halls, with a scouring grief, leaving gleaming gifts in its wake ... That Clarke herself has wrestled for years with an elusive illness further illuminates the secluded world of Piranesi, which so thoroughly captures the isolation of this moment ... rich, wondrous, full of aching joy and sweet sorrow.
The only way in which Piranesi falls short of its predecessor is length; it spans a pleasingly concise 245 pages. As a work of fiction, it’s spectacular; an irresistibly unspooling mystery set in a world of original strangeness, revealing a set of ideas that will stay lodged in your head long after you’ve finished reading ... Where are these southwestern halls? Why did an albatross come to them? And why has the recorder of these events lost access to the standard measure of time? I cannot tell you any of these things, because one of the intense pleasures of Piranesi is making your own guesses, and being proved wrong ... Clarke has the same skill Flann O’Brien poured into The Third Policeman for making insane worlds feel as solid as our own. After all that time, she has produced a second novel that is close to perfect.
...beautiful ... Initially, the book’s momentum is created and maintained by the reader and narrator learning more, at different rates. A little before the halfway point, these processes of discovery intertwine with a conflict that prompts the characters’ actions for the rest of the book ... Piranesi has a deliberately tight focus ... Anyone who reads this book in search of only 'something just like JS&MN' will almost certainly be disappointed: unless the 'something' they are looking for is a lingering sense of warmth, wonder, and fulfillment.
...if her first novel established [Clarke] as one of the world’s best fantasy writers, Piranesi is set to place her in the pantheon of the greats, no modifier necessary ... Both timeless and strikingly timely ... Piranesi is completely unencumbered by questions of identity. His mind is a mystery — both to himself and to the reader — and one of the many joys the book offers is the satisfaction of slowly piecing together an explanation for his apparent amnesia. Another is the experience of seeing the world, however briefly, through the eyes of someone curiously devoid of ego. And then there is the simple thrill of turning the pages to find out what will happen next. Although on one level the book is a philosophical puzzle, like something out of Kafka or Borges, it offers the excitement of an adventure story and the dark allure of a detective yarn ... Now, as we face a winter of confinement, the subtle transformation in Clarke’s work lingers in my mind—a feeling of finally learning how to pick a lock.
In her new novel, Piranesi, Clarke is still working with fantasy literature, but here she crosses it with postmodern magical realism—Borges, Calvino and Marquez go through the Narnian wardrobe this time, rather than Austen, Trollope and Dickens. The result is substantially shorter, and perhaps less accessible. In terms of invention and beauty, though, it’s a fitting heir to Clarke’s first book ... Piranesi is in the House, as you are in the book, and he wanders through it to learn his own identity just as you do. Clarke deftly weaves together highbrow and lowbrow so Piranesi as reader is both symbol and story. To read Piranesi is to be the labyrinth and the traveler in the labyrinth, which is poetry and prose ... Piranesi is a gentle man, and a gentle book. It wants to leave doors open for its characters and its readers ... Piranesi is a novel to revisit—a house you can open again, with statues touched by quiet thoughts and strange tides.
Clarke gives the initially unnamed narrator of this story a remarkable voice, of washed simplicity, blending compassion, obsessive observation and childlike directness ... The pace of Clarke’s storytelling is mesmerising. The slow accumulation of bizarre detail, related in Piranesi’s quiet, even voice, builds steadily so as to increase the reader’s disquiet: this is a World that makes orderly sense to Piranesi and is utterly bewildering to the reader, for whom stray clues, hints and unfinished business constantly press up against the calm of the narrative surface. The cliché that this book is hard to put down is for once true; I can think of few recent books that keep the reader so passionately hungry to know what happens next and to understand the hints and guesses that appear in greater and greater profusion. And – quite properly – we are left at the end with plenty of unresolved questions: the conclusion is profoundly satisfying without being neat ... This is a novel of exceptional beauty, something which surpasses even the lovely, gratifyingly ironic prose familiar from Clarke’s first book. There is at the heart of her writing a rare capacity for the immediate: the stripped, wide-eyed descriptive simplicity of someone who, like her Piranesi, has gone through some sort of barrier and brought back news. A person who has lived in the House and learned its strange kindness.
... a dreamlike follow-up to her busy, involved debut. From within the universe she constructed decades ago in her first writings, Clarke has taken the toughest problem of her own creation—what to do with all the otherworldly architecture she’s made possible—and turned it into an opportunity to explore the effects of trauma and dissociation on memory and identity ... the silence of illness and seclusion becomes the blank areas of memory that our conscious mind can repress. This investigation into consciousness through water and stone is pure Freud ... If Strange & Norrell was a long inquiry into the substance of Englishness, from deep national myth to petty table manners, Piranesi shows the inquirer turning away from social themes and toward more slippery, psychological questions, in order to produce a novel a fraction of the length but with quadruple the seriousness of its predecessor. Piranesi is a story about transformation and the work of a thinker, transformed: Susanna Clarke has fashioned her own myth anew and enlarged the world again.
... the novel’s scope and literary extravagance extends far beyond what its physical matter suggests could be possible ... In the absence, to begin with, of any particular narrative, the prose casts a spell of its own – there is something chilling and unnerving about the intoxication of the language luring us further into the House ... The association with memory loss and trauma is poignant ... Piranesi, the novel and man both, are luxuriously enigmatic and the labyrinthine House they inhabit is intoxicating. This novel is an enchanting, dark, multilayered offering that more than lives up to the power of its predecessor.
... the mystery plot unfolds at a brisk pace ... a philosophical work. At times it becomes a meditation of sorts on epistemology ... a work of intellectual intensity wrapped in a mystery plot, culminating with a cinematic denouement that includes—as it must—a loaded gun. Like a kaleidoscope, Piranesi rewards the reader when turned over in the mind, but also rewards the reader who simply wants to know who Piranesi is, where he came from, and how he came to be a prisoner in that magnificent labyrinth, populated with mythic statues, periodically flooded with tides from nowhere.
The book starts off rather slowly, as we only know what Piranesi knows, which, at the beginning, is practically nothing. But as Piranesi’s understanding increases, the plot unspools like a ball of yarn, gathering pace before culminating in a surprisingly suspenseful finale ... It may be slim but, like an onion, it has many layers to peel back and explore. Clarke’s second novel is definitely worth the wait.
... abides by limits, and within those limits—thanks to those limits, in fact—it is a wonder ... The House is the world on which Clarke exerts her formidable world-building skills ... What’s unsettling about the book, and what I loved most about it, is that this dramatic irony is not played for comedy or for pity. Instead, it illuminates the unbridgeable gap between us, the readers, and Piranesi, and puts forth an argument that the differences between us may be just as damaging to us as they are to him. He may not be able to see how life in the House has warped him, the way we can—but our understanding of the majesty of the House is nothing like his. His enchantment at the wonders of the House, at the world he lives in, is alluring ... Of course the Other’s stories begin to fall apart, and of course Piranesi begins to understand the nature of the House and of his existence. That he trails us a bit in that understanding means that the book didn’t quite astonish me, the way Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell so often did. Instead, Piranesi is after a quieter kind of magic, exploring the ways human beings can adapt and find meaning in even the direst of conditions. Ought we all be devoting more of our energies to appreciating the beauty of our own lives and less to determining the circumstances of our imprisonments?
Slowly—though a little more quickly than Piranesi himself—we deduce what the house is and why he lives in it. (Without spoiling the explanation, I can say it includes some of the most beautiful thinking about magic that I’ve ever encountered in a fantasy novel.) At times, the tick-tick-tick of information makes the plot seem a little too easy. Once Piranesi starts looking into his past, the journey to the solution occasionally seems to be on rails, with new discoveries arriving reliably regardless of what Piranesi does, or whether he does anything at all. In fairness, there’s a kind of classical elegance to this unfolding that echoes the structure of the many-halled House, and if Piranesi seems to make the quest for truth less arduous than a good detective novel, the novel is also required to solve a much knottier mystery. A dead body in a locked room is one thing; 13 dead bodies in a mansion sealed off from reality and containing an indoor sea is something else. And unlike in most detective novels, the answers in Piranesi are every bit as satisfying as the questions.
Like Hilary Mantel, Clarke made the very notion of genre seem quaint ... This is, for a start, a much shorter novel than its predecessor, whose doorstopper proportions were a byproduct of its garrulous and vastly digressive style. All that has been cast aside here, in favour of a prose that is economical almost to the point of austerity ... It would be a disservice even to hint at the revelations that follow, revelations that not only upend Piranesi’s world but confront the reader with some truly onerous moral uncertainties. What can be said, though, is that at least the contours of the truth are encoded in this novel’s architecture ... Clarke fuses these themes, seducing us with imaginative grandeur only to sweep that vision away, revealing the monstrosities to which we can not only succumb but wholly surrender ourselves. The result is a remarkable feat, not just of craft but of reinvention.
... a little imp of a book that packs a punch several times its (relatively) meager page count. I’d worried that, all these years later, Clarke might have grown timid, seeking a breather from all the grand historical world-building. Instead, she creates a dazzling world of infinite fascination inside the musings of one very simple man ... The world of Piranesi is built entirely from scratch, at first as devoid of life as an Escher sketch but gradually filled in until it’s as rich as a second universe ... Piranesi is a portrait of us as young readers, swept into a story and happy to stay there. 'Keep it up!' the novel seems to murmur in our ears, 'read, read, read!' ... In Clarke’s world, we are more than an observer. If we’re reading Piranesi’s words, then we must be subject to the magic as well.
... a...fitting sideways commentary on our current world, the perfect quarantine novel: confined to its home, always noticing new things, suspicious of visitors, fracturing on the edge of sanity ... Piranesi looks like pure whimsy, which, however entertaining, is the betrayal of craft and the negation of drama. But with Clarke’s fiction there are always layers of complexity shifting tectonically against each other, and here the artifice around those conflicts is sharpened by being fabulized. The enchantment Clarke manages to sustain throughout these pages will leave even the canniest reader completely unprepared for the book’s stunning conclusion. It will leave them wondering, with a hard look of assessment, just how much time they themselves have been spending in Piranesi’s house.
Haunting, tantalising, enigmatic, profound — it is all these and more. From the opening sentence the reader is plunged into the novel’s strange gravitational pull ... For the first 80 pages, I was enchanted by the exquisitely weird world Clarke conjures but also, I confess, utterly mystified as to what was going on ... Having lured us into the maze, Clarke gradually ramps up clues that all is not as it seems, and we slowly begin to suspect that Piranesi’s record of the world he inhabits might be less reliable than he believes ... this magnificent novel leaves us wondering if we are perhaps still living in Plato’s cave, mistaking shadows for the real thing.
We’ve got normal words capitalized, mentions of physics-defying phenomena like imprisoned oceans, and the ancient mythic resonance of labyrinths. Sounds like some of that Good Fantasy Stuff, right? It is indeed (there’s even a tight-knit circle of occult academics if that’s your preferred flavor), but we so often associate fantasy with adventure, and Piranesi is the farthest thing from adventure. It’s a trap .. . This is something else that is present in Piranesi: Caring for the dead. The protagonist goes out of his way to honor the remains of people who have died in the labyrinth — to the point that he often generates confusion by talking about them as if they were still alive. Piranesi knows the difference between a living body and a biscuit-box full of bones, but he also knows (perhaps better than we do) that they are still people ... Although it is a fraction of the size of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell , clocking in with fewer than 250 pages, Piranesi hit my mind and soul like a thunderbolt. It is a work of deep power that has given me a lens through which to understand my 2020 experience — both the despair and the catharsis.
Clarke’s new novel is called Piranesi, and it is haunting. It establishes Clarke not just as one of the great fantasy novelists of her generation, but as one of the greatest novelists of any genre currently writing in English ... so haunting, so exquisite ... Piranesi did what all truly great novels do, which is to take me out of myself and then return me back as someone new and changed ... Piranesi is a book bigger than its mysteries and bigger than its slim page length. You will want to let it swallow you whole.
... bewitching ... winks at the great quest epics organized around the hunt for some lost ancient power. It is also what you might think of as an academic thriller in the vein of Umberto Eco or Dan Brown ... because Ms. Clarke’s novel assumes Piranesi’s point of view—the narrative is related by way of his journal entries—these standard plot elements appear blurry and distorted, as though refracted through water. The happy reversal in this novel is that the genre conventions pitting power-mad villains against crusading good guys are entirely foreign to Piranesi, and for much of the novel beyond his comprehension ... a high-quality page-turner—even the most leisurely reader will probably finish it off in a day—but its chief pleasure is immersion in its strange and uncannily attractive setting ... Ms. Clarke is a cool and meticulous stylist—Piranesi’s journal entries about the House are loaded with measurements and calculations and painstaking architectural descriptions—but the territory she evokes transcends rationality ... Establishing that sense of totality—and the feeling of peacefulness that accompanies it—is Ms. Clarke’s standout feat ... The rub, however, is that Piranesi is mistaken, as there are gaps both in his memory and in his conception of the House. As the anthropologists’ skulduggery intrudes on the well-being of the House, the book merges with another literary genre: the puzzle novel, whereby Piranesi pieces together clues—some buried in his early journals, some from pages that have been torn up and woven by seagulls into their nests—to uncover the Other’s true identity, as well as his own. This is neatly done, and it will keep you reading, but it does shift the focus of the book away from its capacious worldbuilding to the practical mechanics of its plot. The trouble with the puzzle novel is that the story becomes so concerned with its solution that it ceases to pay attention to the image it reveals ... It is probably inescapable that Piranesi should undergo a disenchantment of a kind, and that the captivating mystery of its setting pass into a generic mystery in which the point is to figure out what has happened and learn how things will end. But as the ending unfolded, I admit that I was wistful for those earlier passages when Piranesi was still innocent of the complicated novel being constructed around him, serene in the belief that nothing other than his House was real.
Though the book’s setting is stark and its characters initially few, Clarke nevertheless finds a way to create an endearing, multidimensional character in Piranesi ... Clarke deftly creates a bifurcated perception of the House, allowing us to see it from both Piranesi’s worshipful eyes and also from a more detached perspective. Her descriptions at once evoke a sense of the House’s beauty and a sense of uneasy alienation that comes from its daunting size, its eerie emptiness, and the darkness it holds both in the anguished features of some of its statues and in the depths of its Drowned Halls. Clarke’s mesmerizing worldbuilding is particularly impressive in that it creates a concrete sense of such an esoteric place without diminishing its mystery ... The book’s ending and Piranesi’s fate are both poignant and satisfying, a thought-provoking exploration of our layered selves and a moving parable about mental health.
Piranesi centers on a strange, haunting world and features a main character whose earnest goodwill is piercingly endearing ... Piranesi hits many of the same pleasure points as Jonathan Strange—Clarke’s dazzling feats of world building, for one ... Lavishly descriptive, charming, heartbreaking and imbued with a magic that will be familiar to Clarke’s devoted readers, Piranesi will satisfy lovers of Jonathan Strange and win her many new fans.
The first thing everyone is going to notice about Piranesi , Susanna Clarke’s long-awaited second novel following her enormously popular Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell , is that it’s something like a third the length of that blockbuster. The second is that it bears no direct relation to the densely imagined magical 19th century of that novel and of most of Clarke’s short fiction ... both novels feature the belief that some great and powerful knowledge has gone out of the world and that reclaiming it will restore magical abilities (such as telepathy, shape-changing, and telekinesis), while Piranesi’s own rather formal narrative voice, with its 18th-century-style habit of capitalizing important nouns and its almost simplistic deference to half-understood notions of Science and Reason, lends the whole a vaguely archaic tone ... With Piranesi , Clarke is knowingly taking a number of risks. In place of the wry, knowing Austenian voice of the earlier novel, she offers an ingenuous narrator who remains several steps behind the reader for most of the novel. Character roles remain shifty and indeterminate for much of the story, and questions of the reliability of memory and testimony are never far from the surface. But in the end, the elegant and ingenious structure of the novel lends it a haunting quality which would not be nearly as hypnotic were the story told any other way, and 'hypnotic' is the term I find myself returning to in trying to account for the novel’s strange and powerful magic.
Piranesi operates as a tight, brisk, existential mystery—albeit one just as interested in delving into the satisfying mysteries of loneliness as the question of who did what to whom. When finally unraveled, that plot ultimately proves to be far less interesting than the presentation, and the protagonist. (The book occasionally feels like a short story unnaturally extended, or a novel cut short, somehow all at once.) But Piranesi himself remains an endlessly engaging travel guide, a spotless mind whose strange knowledge and odd blind spots provide just as interesting a labyrinth as the one he spends his days wandering through.
The titular character more than rises to the occasion, sharing the story of the impossible place in which he lives in a manner that is both overtly and subtly untrustworthy. And when you put that in the sort of lush and vividly-realized fantastical setting that Clarke creates, well … you’ve got something pretty special ... an immersive book, a story whose distinct voice quickly captures your mind’s ear. Piranesi is one of those characters that clarifies themselves IMMEDIATELY; we’re in his head in a matter of a few sentences, charmed by his naivete and slightly off-kilter manner of speaking and engaging with the world ... Clarke is so good at the vivid realization of place – the House is a stunning literary creation. The difficulty of what is done here can’t be overstated, this evocation of an enclosed infinity...She puts us there, in the midst of massive halls and vaulted ceilings and an unending parade of detailed sculpture; her world-building is such that we can SEE this place. It’s a rare gift ... Tonality matches setting here; both are steeped in an ever-so-slightly skewed reality, allowing the reader to slip into the seemingly still waters to experience the chaotic, conspiratorial churning just below the narrative surface. Marrying the sunny gormlessness of Piranesi to the sinister undertones of the world in which he walks makes for a compelling contrast ... a first-rate work from a first-rate writer, a wonderful and surreal romp. It reads like a pop cover of Borges, embracing aesthetic complexity in the service of exploring the ethics of exploration – all in just a couple hundred pages. Susanna Clarke is as good as it gets as far as wedding literary and genre conceits in her fiction; this is another example of her considerable abilities, one that is well worth the 16-year wait. You can take my word for it.
In her highly distilled and rarefied first novel since her Hugo Award–winning debut, Jonathan Strange & Mr NorrellClarke posits another dynamic between a seeming mentor and mentee. But the realm in which their increasingly suspect relationship unspools is a bizarre and baffling one ... As questions multiply and suspense mounts in this spellbinding, occult puzzle of a fable, one begins to wonder if perhaps the reverence, kindness, and gratitude practiced by Clarke’s enchanting and resilient hero aren’t all the wisdom one truly needs.
With her second novel, Clarke invokes tropes that have fueled a century of surrealist and fantasy fiction as well as movies, television series, and even video games. At the foundation of this story is an idea at least as old as Chaucer: Our world was once filled with magic, but the magic has drained away. Clarke imagines where all that magic goes when it leaves our world and what it would be like to be trapped in that place. Piranesi is a naif, and there’s much that readers understand before he does. But readers who accompany him as he learns to understand himself will see magic returning to our world ... Weird and haunting and excellent.
Clarke wraps a twisty mystery inside a metaphysical fantasy in her extraordinary new novel, her first since 2004’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. ... With great subtlety, Clarke gradually elaborates an explanatory backstory to her tale’s events and reveals sinister occult machinations that build to a crescendo of genuine horror. This superbly told tale is sure to be recognized as one of the year’s most inventive novels