Paul Jessup Reviews PIRANESI by Susanna Clarke

Some people want to go to Neverland, or Hogwarts, or Middlearth, or Narnia. That was never for me, as much as I appreciated those books, I never felt the pull to their lands. For me it was always Earthsea, and the lesser known, stranger fantasy worlds. And I feel that pull now towards the House, the Labyrinth, the endless place at the heart of Piranesi. I feel like the titular main character, the beauty he sees in his new home is one that calls to me. It is more than just poetry, it is a homesickness towards that world.

Let me digress. This is a world that De Chirico imagines in his paintings, lonely and filled with ruins and labyrinths. It is the landscape of the hotel in Last Year in Marienbad, reflecting the amnesiac mind of its inhabitants. Just like that movie, the characters in Piranesi have a slippery grasp on the past, the present, and even their concept of self. And like all good amnesiac fiction, it reveals the multifactor nature of identity, and the murky grip we hold on what actually consists of our ego.  

And yet, there is beauty in this existential angst. I mentioned it before, yes, and the House (the Labyrinth) exists as a mirror to the consciousness of our two main characters. They are at odds, and yet somehow companions to one another. One has taken the labyrinth as home, the other sees it as a nightmare, a trap, a thing to be unpuzzled and solved. Funny how I used the word The Other, there, even without knowing or meaning. For that is what Piranesi has named this other person who wanders the halls, keeping this stranger at a distance.

Maybe there’s a lack of trust, there. Maybe there is a lack of trust in himself. I would say the narrator is unreliable, but that would be simplifying things. The Labyrinth, the House, it is unreliable too. And yet for the narrator it is reliable, as much as the seasons and the turning of the tides are reliable in our world. He has found a rhythm with the House, and the House has found a rhythm with him.

He keeps diaries and notebooks. You know how long he’s been in here, because he lists the dates on the earliest notebooks. But later on, he moves away from numerical years and begins to create his own, surreal and more interesting names for the years. They act as a pneumonic device, and remind him of the important things that happened in that year.

And somehow, these reminisces draw us in. They hold us and gather us in that House, that Labyrinth that neither can escape from.

In a way, this is a perfect pandemic book. A book where everyone is quarantined and unable to escape. But there are secrets here, and mysteries. This is the kind of book where you set out to read it slowly, drink in the words, and let them sit inside of you. You feel, as you start, that this kind of poetry and mystery requires thought and time.

But then, before you know it? Time sneaks up on you, and the novel is finished and it was only a day. Only a day! Then you have to dive back in, and experience it all over again. Great books are like that. They are endless loops we can return to, infinite cycles we can experience each time. And good books seem to change when you’re away from them, and take on new counters and shapes.

Even if you’ve been gone for only a day, or a few hours, or a week.

And that’s it, isn’t it? It’s a great book. It’s a book I wanted for so long, and not just because it was fifteen years since her last book. When I heard it described, as a labyrinth filled with surreal statuary (the woman covered in bees is both mine and the narrator’s favorite), with a ceiling of clouds that drift through and a basement of oceans with tides that rise up and drown the world, I know that I needed it. That I’ve always needed it.

This is such a brilliant departure from Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Gone are the archaic speeches, the large thumping volumes mammoth in size. And yet, there is so much the same, when you look for it, it’s there. The two male main character, both in opposition to each other, like mirror reflections turned negative. They propel the story, and keep you reading on and on and on.

What are you doing here, reading my review? Go. Go and read it. And when you’re done, come back and talk to me about it. This is a book that is meant to be shared and discussed and talked about. Not a book to be kept inside, nestled in your own thoughts without room to breathe.

Art of Giovanni Battista Piranesi from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Paul Jessup – Paul Jessup is a critically acclaimed/award winning author of strange and slippery fiction. With a career spanning over ten years in the field, he’s had works published in so many magazines he’s lost count and three or four books published in the small press.  You can attempt to find him at

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