Labyrinths of Fantastical Prose: “Piranesi” by Susanna Clarke


“Piranesi” was written by Susanna Clarke. (Courtesy of Facebook)

Mason Rowlee, Columnist

The world is a terrifying place with infinite possibilities. In a time of uncertainty, rapid change and immense distress, there are constant reminders of a hopeful future — even as the world appears to become more entangled. In her latest novel, “Piranesi,” author Susanna Clarke’s fantastical prose explores how our contemporary world is infinitely boundless and terrifying.

As an author, Clarke’s works have always been fantastical. Her Hugo Award-winning debut novel, “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell,” was adapted into a successful BBC miniseries. “Piranesi” is her third published work and is well-aligned with “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell,” but continues to engage with the contemporary in new and profound ways. 

Piranesi, the novel’s narrator, lives in an area between space and time: a labyrinth of sculpture and oddity that sits atop of a restless ocean. His only companion — a man known as the “Other” — meets with him twice a week to meticulously study Piranesi’s home. As Piranesi pursues his survival in the labyrinth, signs of other humans emerge, propelling Piranesi’s journey to defend himself and uncover the truth. 

Set in the present day, Piranesi is a novel that dissects contemporary society in a way reminiscent of Greco-Roman mythology. Clarke infuses powerful symbols and foreshadowing in her use of setting by intimately describing the statues that comfort and nourish Piranesi as mythological figures. As Piranesi’s journey continues, readers watch him attempt to find the center of both himself and the labyrinth, forming a story in conversation with the myth of the Minotaur while grounded in the issues of today.

In a contemporary sense, Piranesi is a character in isolation; he ventures through his home with purpose and determination but cannot ever leave, perpetually trapped by the need to survive. It is in this state of isolation that Piranesi writes in his journals, cataloging his reality. As readers watch him discover the labyrinth’s truths, they are intimately connected to his state of consciousness and question their perception of both his home and the novel.

While beautifully crafted and attentive to character, Clarke crafts Piranesi’s mystery in an often disorienting and confusing way. Although readers are trapped alongside Piranesi — and, therefore, should feel confused — the novel’s momentum at the beginning is slow, and it is not until further into the novel that a sense of setting and purpose emerge. 

Although Clarke’s pacing in the novel is arguably flawed, her ability to craft plot, beautifully complex worlds and bold characters remains at the forefront of the novel. While readers are confused for the first 50 pages, they are drawn into Piranesi’s stream of consciousness as he describes his mesmerizing world and continue reading out of curiosity. “Piranesi” is a novel that delights in reinterpreting mythology to mean something contemporary, and Clarke’s interpretation of our society is altogether fascinating and mysterious, making “Piranesi” an undoubtedly enjoyable meditation on our world.