Synopsis: The universe is an infinite building full of marble statues, containing only two living people. A mysterious third person may be arriving soon…
Book Review: Yeah, that’s a crap synopsis, but I really have no idea how to give a synopsis of this book. I almost didn’t bother reading it, because it’s by the author of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a book so very bad that I couldn’t imagine ever reading something by Clarke again. But Piranesi is only a couple hundred pages, and I was assured by a book club member I trust who read both of them that they are very different books. So I decided to read just the first chapter or two, to give it a try.
I was instantly in love.
Have you read The Library of Babel yet? If not, it’s worth it to go read right now, it’s only 7 pages, and it’s famous for a damned good reason. If you’re like me, when you got to the end you thought “Dammit, this is so freakin’ good! Why isn’t there more? I could read a whole novel based on this!!” Piranesi is that novel! It’s not literally based in the Library of Babel, but it does take place in an infinite building of repeating rooms that contain permutations of statues which can be interpreted as cryptic messages. The house has its own ecology and provides (bare) resources for those within it. The inhabitants don’t find anything unusual about this, and are focused on unlocking the secrets of the house. The whole thing is presented in a beautiful concreteness that belies it’s surreality, and it grips my imagination like a Sith Lord choking out an insubordinate henchman.
The protagonist, Piranesi, is also the best damn person you’ll ever meet. He’s guileless and innocent and full of trust and energy and enthusiasm. And incredibly analytical and meticulous, in the style of the old British Natural Philosophers. Anyone who doesn’t fall in love with him is a monster, and we probably shouldn’t be friends. There are so many times where I thought “Oh no… Piranesi, don’t do that, you’re too trusting and naive! But I love that about you! But this is gonna suck for you in the near future!”
The story itself is pretty darn good too, with an unraveling that feels like it mirrors a descent into dementia, except maybe in reverse? I don’t want to give things away, but it was a good time!
Finally, the brevity of the novel is a huge asset. I don’t know if that sounds like an insult, but it’s not meant as one. The novel knows exactly what it’s doing, and how long it will take to get there so that it stays fresh and exciting the entire way without wearing out its welcome. Once everything is explored and poked, it wraps things up with a touching, poingant, and somehow regretfully nostolgic chapter that feels more like poetry than prose.
What I’m saying is, I really really liked this. It’s weird, and kinda artsy, but without ever getting its head up its ass. I’m really glad I read it. Highly Recommended.
Book Club Review: Not everyone was quite as enthralled by this as I was. Some people found the bizarre world a bit too frustrating. But fortunately, it was still well-written, short, and Piranesi was very likable. This meant everyone finished the book, and no one hated it, and we had several things to discuss about style and fiction. Even for people who weren’t thrilled with it, it made for fast reading and good discussion. Recommended.