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Issue 1785 (PDF)
The student newspaper of Imperial College London


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Piranesi

Piranesi Cover

Books

in Issue 1785

Piranesi

Author
Susanna Clarke

It’s hard to review a book shrouded in mystery. The appeal of Piranesi, from the very first words you lay your eyes upon, is that you simply cannot comprehend what is going on.

The reader is swept away to a mystical realm inspired by 18th century Italian architect Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s prints, titled Imaginary Prisons. Sixteen drawings depict fantastical rooms with stairs leading to nowhere and a Kafkian feel. Piranesi follows an eponymous enigmatic character through his diary entries documenting the rooms of a palace. Through the eyes of the protagonist, Susanna Clarke explores a series of immense “Halls”, connected by “Vestibules”, and populated by “Birds” and “Tides”. The novel draws you in and expects you to play by its rules. Like a child learning how to speak, readers become familiarized with Piranesi’s code: which words need to be capitalized, the topographical arrangement of the interminable Halls, and why the protagonist is keeping a diary in the first place. Nonsensical phrases start acquiring meaning as you surrender your preconceived notions about the world and accept Piranesi’s system of principles.

Though confusing (and bordering on frustrating) at first, the novel picks up pace as it introduces new characters and intrigues. Everything that Clarke so cleverly builds – labyrinthine structures with seemingly no rhyme or reason – falls apart as readers uncover the truth. It feels as though the protagonist is stuck in a trap to which only the writer and the reader have the key.

A panel of female judges chaired by the brilliant Bernardine Evaristo granted Piranesi the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction – in my opinion, rightfully so. For all its occasional slow passages, the novel is an intricate piece of writing that ultimately poses the question: are we stuck in mental prisons of our own making?

Nonsensical phrases start acquiring meaning as you surrender your preconceived notions about the world and accept Piranesi’s system of principles.

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