Book Discussion: Piranesi (spoilers!)

Piranesi by Susanna Clark

Piranesi is one of those books that is really short but really dense and has a lot to ponder. Despite the confusion of the first few chapters, everything came together incredibly well by the end. This is the kind of book that begs to be discussed, so I’m going to share some thoughts and I hope you will share some insights of your own.

One of the things that struck me was how accidentally timely this book was. It was written when Susanna Clarke was housebound due to chronic illness, and a lot of the themes touch on that feeling of being trapped in a small space (trapped in your body or mind, trapped in your house). Then the pandemic hit and we all had a taste of what it was like to reduce our existence to the four walls of our residences. I think that collective experience will make this book resonate with everyone, regardless of whether they have also struggled with chronic or mental illness. The idea of choosing to find joy in our confined existence rather than choosing to fight or escape…we’ve all been forced into accepting that we must stay home for months, and suddenly Piranesi doesn’t seem so naive for choosing to accept his fate as well.

Trapped GIFs | Tenor

The rest of this post is going to be full of spoilers so please don’t keep reading if you plan to read Piranesi and don’t want to be spoiled!

My favorite part of this book was the quiet tension ramping up as you the reader realized something sinister was going on far before it even occurred to Piranesi to question his idyllic existence. It was heartbreaking to see him have so much faith in what The Other says, it doesn’t even occur to Piranesi that The Other might be lying or may not have his best interest in mind. This whole idea of being imprisoned without even realizing it is definitely an allusion to the painter Piranesi, famous for his work on hidden or fantastical prisons. It’s interesting in this book that our imprisoned character is Piranesi, rather than The Other, or Ketterley, or any of the others who created this prison world. Perhaps the message is that our protagonist has imprisoned himself by falling so deeply into the trap of amnesia and complete trust in The House.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778) | Essay | The Metropolitan Museum of  Art | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
One of Piranesi’s drawings
Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

I did see a goodreads review where someone was upset that Piranesi wasn’t a woman, or that there was only one named female character in the entire book. They felt like this was a very patriarchal stance and wanted more inclusivity. When I first started reading the book, Piranesi was non-binary in my head because there were very few context clues to assign a gender to our protagonist. And even once we found out that Piranesi was a man, I felt like it didn’t actually matter who Piranesi was, since the whole book is so metaphorical. Piranesi is simply the lens through which we see the world, the innocent main character who finds joy in his small existence and trusts the only other person he knows implicitly. Had Piranesi been a woman and 16 a man, I think the power dynamics would have been more patriarchal than in this case. I also thought it was important that the one person who had empathy and wanted to help Piranesi go home was, as a woman, different from Piranesi himself and all the other characters he encountered, men who wanted to keep him imprisoned.

The last thing I wanted to touch on was all those references to the Narnia books. There was a reference to Lucy talking to the Faun, which was one of Piranesi’s favorite statues, and a thematic reference to The Magician’s Nephew with the statue garden where people forget that they had a life before they started turning to stone. I don’t know why Susanna Clarke decided to connect her book so deeply to the Narnia books, so if anyone has any ideas, please let me know!

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