‘It is my belief that the World (or, if you will, the House, since the two are for all practical purposes identical) wishes an Inhabitant for Itself to be a witness to its Beauty and the recipient of its Mercies.’
This is my type of book, apparently. For a good portion of the beginning, I didn’t believe it. I’m not at all a visual reader, so the inundation of rooms and locations was overwhelming and confusing—but I managed to push through it, because Clarke is skillful in slowly exposing the mysteries of the House. This is my first novel by her but hopefuly not my last. Her style in this book reminded me a lot of early 19th century writing—before proper standardization in English, when people used to emphasize almost all nouns for emphasis. Piranesi, the titular character, has nothing to do with the artist—which is what I had assumed at first from the title—but his story is no less compelling for that. The plot is intriguing and slow-paced but still gripping, and the characters are memorable and distinct in their own ways—for the most part. I would not say this is a novel for most readers, and I’m honestly a bit surprised it’s a bestseller because these types of books tend not to be.I won’t say too much about the narrative, since that would spoil the fun. Go into Piranesi knowing nothing beyond the title, if you must—probably not even your expectations of the author, because apparently this is unlike her other novel. The main idea behind it is that Piranesi lives in a mysterious House filled with statues, a relentless sea, and impenetrable clouds. What is this House, and why is he there? You will have to read to find out. I will say that I was able to anticipate a lot of the major plot points in the novel, but I still didn’t quite hit the target—often times I was merely adjacent, or got lucky with my guesses. If you enjoy a good, cerebral puzzle, then this is the book for you. Towards the end of the book, I had a hard time putting it down; in fact, I finished the last third more or less in one sitting, staying up quite late to do so.The characters are fairly dynamic and interesting. Piranesi’s unfettered enthusiasm and quasi-worship of the House was fascinating to read about—certainly themes about spirituality and faith come into play, but even just the mundane like how to live out each day in the face of uncertainty. The reader is occasionally at odds about how to understand Piranesi, and whether he can be a reliable narrator. Nevertheless, his ability to catalogue the Halls of the House and his dedication to the project is commendable, and his memory for specific Statues and their positions, etc. is equally impressive. As character traits, they are a bit fantastic, but this is a fantastic (in the sense of fantasy) novel, so it works. The Other is also a rather curious character—he is Piranesi’s only companion in the House, and the slow development of that character is, for the most part, executed quite splendidly. There are small aspects that seemed unrealistic or convenient to me, in terms of both character and plot, but as a whole the novel feels pretty solid.As I alluded to, there are some heavy themes in this book: the self, religion/belief, suffering, wisdom, etc. Spotting these motifs in the narrative was a really enjoyable experience. The book is quite slow-paced, which I tend not to enjoy, so some degree of ‘just getting through it’ is necessary. Piranesi has some nice moments with the statutes and animals in the House, but… I just didn’t care all that much. There isn’t really any Greek mythology in this book at all. There are certain statutes that are Minotaurs. That’s it. I have no idea why the publishers compared this to Circe—that is completely off-mark. (Well, I do—because marketing.) If you want a cozy, cottage story, this isn’t it. It is a literary puzzle, meant to be elusive and frustrating at times. The ending is a bit abrupt and not fully satisfactory either, but it does lend itself to reflection. If you enjoy thoughtful, intellectually stimulating books that leave you thinking about them even after you finish, you might enjoy this. If I had to give a comparison, I might suggest something like The Name of the Rose: atmospheric, heady, and more about a certain idea or authorial vision than a straightforward sense of plot or strictly black-and-white characters or moral dilemmas.