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A Review of Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.

Cover of "PiranesI," illustrations via Shutterstock, design by David Mann

Cover of "PiranesI," illustrations via Shutterstock, design by David Mann

The Infinite House

The narrator—who is sometimes called Piranesi—lives in the Infinite House, a mansion of uncountable halls, where lower floors are flooded by ocean tides and upper floors are thick with clouds. As far as he knows, this House is the whole world. Thinking of himself as an adventurous scientist, the narrator hopes to explore as much of the House as he can while recording its wonders, especially the many statues to be found in each of its halls and alcoves.

While engaged in his investigations, he also takes time to help the Other, who is the only other living person in the Infinite House. The Other has different goals that include discovering the vast and secret power that must reside somewhere in the House. It is this Other who calls the narrator Piranesi as they go about their work and their lives.

Eventually, the narrator begins to uncover clues that there may be many more people in the House, and the Other may be withholding knowledge about the world and themself. Driven by his curiosity and longing to connect with other people, Piranesi works to uncover the truth about what he and the Other are really doing in the Infinite House.

Michelangelo's Pieta, a sculpture of similar style to many described in Piranesi

Michelangelo's Pieta, a sculpture of similar style to many described in Piranesi

Was He Going on to You About the Alcoves?

Piranesi unfolds as a series of journal entries recorded by the narrator as he tries to understand the Infinite House and himself. Much of the novel is surreal and meditative. The magical nature of the setting creates unique surroundings for the characters and provides plenty of striking images, especially when the many statues in the halls are described.

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In the early parts of the novel, there’s plenty of pleasure to be had in the descriptions of the various halls before the plot begins to take shape. By its nature, the Infinite House is dreamlike, so Susanna Clarke gets a lot of mileage out of just having the narrator recount his experiences and take stock of his surroundings. When the main story begins to develop, it does so with a sense of creeping paranoia as the narrator begins to doubt the deeds and intentions of the Other.

While not exactly allegorical, the novel could be considered a prolonged metaphor in the same way some readers think of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” as a novella-length examination of illness and death. Piranesi can be viewed as a similar exploration of mental illness or altered psychological states. In the narrator’s journals, the reader sees that he believes in the logic and coherence of everything he does, which rings true for anyone who is familiar with case studies of people suffering psychotic episodes or in delusional states like cases of paranoid schizophrenia or extreme manic or depressive episodes.

Psychoanalytical interpretations aside, the novel is rich in imagery and symbolism because the setting is one of such magic and wonder; the arrival of an Albatross is made into a wild and magical scene (26–33). It is easy to believe the narrator must be correct because his outlook of reverence and gratitude feels so right as he encounters his surroundings. More than once, he writes, “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite” (5). He comes across as pleasant and agreeable, acclimating himself to the strangeness of the setting and accepting it.

Minotaur in Labyrinth, Roman mosaic at Conímbriga, Portugal

Minotaur in Labyrinth, Roman mosaic at Conímbriga, Portugal

Not All Who Wander Are Lost

As an epistolary novel, Piranesi reads like a series of found documents that recount the narrator's explorations of the Infinite House as he discovers and rediscovers information about himself and the Other. The setting is sometimes compared to a maze or labyrinth, which is reinforced by the enormous statues of Minotaurs in the First Vestibule (78). It turns out the narrator is similarly complex, with twists in his character even he doesn’t foresee or recall without the help of his journals. This technique on Clarke’s part provides another layer of complexity, like Christopher Nolan’s Memento or Ayn Rand’s Anthem. The downside to this technique is that the action of the story can feel at a distance from the reader, and even if the audience doesn’t believe the narrator is lying, it becomes clear that his recollection isn’t always trustworthy, which distresses him, too (162).

While it is a different type of novel from Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, this novel is also infused with a sense of the magical and otherworldly. It has plenty of danger and adventure in an imaginative setting. Whether the novel is considered speculative fiction, magical realism, or fantasy, it is an excellent work not to be missed.


Clarke, Susanna. Piranesi. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020.

© 2020 Seth Tomko

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