02 | Piranesi
Transcript for the episode 02 | Piranesi
Hi, it’s Gwen, and welcome to Hey, You Should Read This, the podcast where I take recommendations from my friends and the internet on the books I really should be reading already. Today, on this first solo episode of the podcast, we’re talking about Piranesi by Susanna Clarke.
Piranesi is a fantasy story, or a fantasy-adjacent story, fantasy-ish, fantasy something–Its got magic in it. There’s a house, and there’s magic. The story revolves around a man who lives in a ginormous house filled with marble statues that occasionally gets incredibly flooded. And it is told in a journal-entry format, which was really interesting and something I tend to like. I really like epistolary novels, which are novels written in letter-format, so this was not a hard shift for me.
What was a hard shift for me is that the calendar system was super weird, and you’re just dropped in the middle of it over time, it’s a really quick adjustment. But opening that first page and seeing stuff about the year the albatross came to the southwestern halls really threw me for a little bit. I haven’t decided exactly how I want to do spoilers and plot on this podcast, but I think what I’m going to do is give you just the context of some story beats that I really liked or liked that interact with the themes, but I’m not going to give you the specifics of how it all went down so that things aren’t entirely spoiled if you decide you want to read the book.
Which I recommend. I really, really liked this one. I first heard of this book from YouTube, probably from Jen Campbell a couple of years ago. I remember hearing about it when it first came out, maybe more like a couple years ago. I heard about it from the internet, and I have been wanting to read it for a while. And now was the time. I read it digitally from my library, and I read it in chunks about half an hour at a time. I read the text format of the book, but I had about half hour windows where I could read, so that might have messed with my sense of the pacing, but it took a little bit to get into, to get used to the weird sort of calendar system and the descriptions.
Because this man, our main character, Piranesi, is completely isolated. He is entirely alone, except for one other person who he sees twice a week and is called “The Other”, because it is him and the other person in this entire huge house. The house is the entire world–there are two people in it. So you are getting a lot of journal entries from this very isolated man who has a very genuinely compassionate and kind worldview–he takes care of the dead who are in these halls, he takes care of the statues, makes sure they’re all kept up. He takes care of himself and has kindness for himself and The Other–he just seems like a very good person.
There starts to be, part way through (about a quarter or a third of the way through the book), some hints that things aren’t quite what they seem and something is up. Namely, one of his previous journals is labeled with the regular old Gregorian year 2012. And that was the point where I really started to get interested in this mystery that was starting to happen. And there ended up being themes of manipulation and cults and identity, and what is the correct way of viewing reality, that I really wasn’t expecting from this book with the kind of vague blurb (from what I saw). The blurb had just talked about, “There’s a man, in a house, full of statues, it floods, stuff happens.” It didn’t really talk about the intense themes of isolation and manipulation and transgressive ideas that were being discussed more through this book.
And that was part of why I found it really interesting, because it was a little bit different from what I expected, but not in a bad way. It wasn’t a light fantasy, it wasn’t a high-end epic, it was somewhere in the middle because the sense of reality was so off from standard. I’m not sure the best way to describe it, but throughout my notes here I have the word interesting appearing a lot of times. The mystery hints were really good at slowly building that there was something going on but you weren’t quite sure what it was–or at least, I wasn’t–until…Like there were total huge reveals that I was not expecting, which I quite enjoyed. But I’m not going to give you what those reveals are because we like saving nice things for actually reading the books.
There was an interesting sense of awareness of the mystery from Piranesi, our main character, and how he noticed certain things but then he was such a kind and forgiving person that he was like, “Oh, it’s probably nothing”. And there were portions of this book where I wanted to reach in and shake this character and be like, “Something is up, start caring, start paying attention” but you can’t do that, he’s just there and you’re hoping he’s going to be okay. It was a really interesting book and a really interesting execution of themes, andI really wanted the best for this man. Luckily, things end nicely, for the most part for our main character–even if there’s a little bit of nuance to it, and it’s kind of complex, and it has some really interesting things to do with identity and–I wish there was a better way to explain this–like identity and how you see yourself and the world. Things end well for him in a complicated way, which honestly is the thing I think makes most sense for the book, even if, again, it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting.
So the thing I mentioned about the half-hour reading times throwing off the pace, maybe (I’m not sure, because I haven’t sat down and read it all the way through in one sitting), was that it took a little bit to get into, until about that 25% mark where those clues started getting dropped that something was afoot. Throughout it kind of seemed like the pace was very wavy, which seemed fitting. And by wavy, I mean that it would sort of–the pace would sort of spike as something new was revealed and then it would lull down for a little bit as Piranesi was sort of absorbing what had just happened and reckoning with things and coming to terms with new information, and then it would spike again as more information was revealed, and it would do that throughout. But that felt really fitting for a book that was so centered on tides and the environment around him, and like being mindful of the nature and the water and the lapping of the sea being a huge–like that’s the one consistent sound in the house, is the waves of the sea crashing against the walls. I don’t know, it all just sort of fit together very nicely. I wasn’t expecting to like it as much as I did in the beginning, just because that adjustment period was a little weird, but I really do like it and really recommend it. If you’re in the mood for a fantasy story that has kind of an unexpected world and a way of approaching really intense themes in a compassionate way, pick up Piranesi. I think you’ll like it.
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