Piranesi (novel)

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Piranesi (Susanna Clarke).png
Cover of first edition
AuthorSusanna Clarke
Audio read byChiwetel Ejiofor
CountryUnited Kingdom
PublisherBloomsbury Publishing
Publication date
15 September 2020
Media typePrint (hardback), e-book, audio
ISBN9781526622426 (hardback)
LC ClassPR6103.L375 P57 2020

Piranesi is a fantasy novel by English author Susanna Clarke, published by Bloomsbury Publishing in 2020. It is Clarke's second novel, following her debut Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004), published sixteen years earlier. Piranesi won the 2021 Women's Prize for Fiction.


Piranesi lives in a place called the House, a world composed of infinite halls and vestibules lined with statues, no two of which are alike. The upper level of the House is filled with clouds, and the lower level with an ocean, which occasionally surges into the middle level following tidal patterns that Piranesi meticulously tracks. He believes he has always lived in the House, and that there are only fifteen people in the world, most of whom are long-dead skeletons. Piranesi records every day in his journals, the text of which makes up the novel.

Twice a week, Piranesi meets with the Other, a well-dressed man who enlists his help to search for a "Great and Secret Knowledge" hidden somewhere in the House. The Other occasionally brings Piranesi supplies that seem to originate from outside the House, such as shoes, electric torches, and multivitamins. When Piranesi suggests that they abandon the quest for the Great and Secret Knowledge, the Other says they have had this conversation before, and warns Piranesi that the House slowly erodes one's memories and personality.

The Other warns Piranesi that a sixteenth person, whom both call "16," may enter the House to do him harm, and that he must not approach 16 under any circumstances or he will lose his sanity. Piranesi meets an elderly stranger he calls the Prophet, who identifies the Other as Ketterley, a rival who stole his ideas about the Knowledge. The Prophet claims that the House is a "distributary world", formed by ideas flowing out of another world. He declares he will lead 16 to the House in order to hurt Ketterley.

While indexing his journals, Piranesi discovers references to entries he doesn't remember writing which include terms mentioned by the Prophet. The entries tell the story of an occultist from the modern world named Laurence Arne-Sayles who posited that other worlds existed and could be accessed; Ketterley was one of his students. Arne-Sayles fostered a cult-like mentality among his followers and was eventually imprisoned for kidnapping a man named James Ritter. Ritter later described being held captive in a place resembling the House.

Piranesi discovers that 16 has entered the House, and leaves a message. Piranesi avoids reading 16's reply, but interactions with the Other reveal that she is a woman named Raphael. After learning that a rare confluence of tides will soon flood the middle level of the House, Piranesi leaves a warning for 16, and discovers a message from her asking "Are you Matthew Rose Sorensen?" Reading the name gives Piranesi a vision of standing in a modern city.

Further research in Piranesi's journals reveals that someone has destroyed all entries relating to Ketterley. Piranesi pieces the destroyed pages back together from scraps he finds in gull nests, and learns the true story of how he came to the House: he was Matthew Rose Sorensen, a journalist writing a book about Arne-Sayles. When Sorensen went to interview Ketterley, Ketterley used a ritual to imprison him in the House, where he slowly lost his memory and constructed a new identity which Ketterley mockingly named Piranesi.

On the day of the flood, Piranesi confronts Ketterley with his reclaimed memories just as Raphael returns to find him. Ketterley tries to kill them both, but drowns in the floodwaters. After the water recedes, Raphael explains that she is a British police detective investigating disappearances related to the Arne-Sayles cult. She asks Piranesi to return to his home world, where his family have, for six years since he disappeared from London, wondered what happened to him. After long deliberation, he elects to leave the House.

In an epilogue, the narrator has adjusted to living in his home world, but often returns to the House. The narrator brings James Ritter back to visit the House, tends to Ketterley's body, and joins Raphael when she visits the House. He reflects that he is no longer quite Sorensen or Piranesi, but must construct a third identity from the remnants of the other two.

Background and publication[edit]

Piranesi is Clarke's second novel, following her debut Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004), which sold 4 million copies worldwide and was adapted into a BBC miniseries of the same name in 2015. Shortly after its publication, Clarke became ill with what was later diagnosed as chronic fatigue syndrome. Her writing became a "torturous" process. She worked on several projects, including a sequel to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, but found herself "incapable of making decisions": "I found it impossible to decide between one version of a sentence and another version, but also between having the plot go in this direction and having it go in that direction. Everything became like uncontained bushes, shooting out in all directions." Clarke credits a visit to the set of the Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell miniseries with reinvigorating her confidence as an author. She had felt weighed down by the "consciousness" of her time spent inactive and unable to complete projects, and decided to "simplify" what she was asking of herself. Piranesi was a longtime unfinished project of Clarke's which "probably predates Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell". She decided to return to it as she deemed it "more manageable": "I thought, it doesn't have hundreds of characters and it won't require a huge amount of research because I don't know what research I could do for it."[1]

Piranesi was published in hardback, e-book and audio format on 15 September 2020 by Bloomsbury Publishing.[2] The audiobook version was narrated by actor Chiwetel Ejiofor.[3]


Piranesi received reviews of unanimous admiration.[4][5][6][7][8][9][10][11] Sarah Ditum of The Times gave the novel a rave review, writing, "After all that time, she has produced a second novel that is close to perfect."[12]

Ron Charles of The Washington Post called it "infinitely clever" and praised Piranesi's acceptance of his imprisonment for unintentionally making the novel "resonate with a planet in quarantine" due to the COVID-19 pandemic.[13]

Publishers Weekly called it an "inventive" novel, praising Clarke's subtlety in progressing the novel's storyline.[14]


The Round Tower, Giovanni Battista Piranesi

The title of the novel alludes to the 18th-century Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi, who produced a series of sixteen prints entitled Imaginary Prisons which depict enormous subterranean vaults with stairs and mighty machines.[5]

Piranesi contains several references or allusions to C. S. Lewis's series The Chronicles of Narnia. In the "Statues" entry of Part I, the narrator of Piranesi notes that he dreamt of a faun "standing in a snowy forest and speaking to a female child", likely a reference to Lucy Pevensie meeting the faun Mr. Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.[15] When describing the character Dr. Valentine Andrew Ketterley, the text notes that he is the son of a "Ranulph Andrew Ketterley" and that "the Ketterleys are an old Dorsetshire family." Both the names and the description of the family are evocative of Andrew Ketterley, a key figure in The Magician's Nephew who describes his family as "a very old family. An old Dorsetshire family." This connection is further strengthened by the quotation from The Magician's Nephew given at the front of the novel, which was also spoken in that book by Andrew Ketterley.[16] In addition, there are several similarities between the House of Piranesi and the so-called "Wood between the Worlds" of The Magician's Nephew.[17][7] Both are alternative worlds (distinct from our own) that must be reached through supernatural means, both contain life but of a less variegated nature than that in the characters' original worlds, and both induce a state of forgetfulness in newcomers, making them believe that they have always been in the new, supernatural, world.

The story of Piranesi has also been compared to the parable of the cave by Plato, who is an inspiration of Digory Kirke in Narnia.[18] In the story of Piranesi, Piranesi is confined to a world filled with nothing but statues, which represent a greater reality which he is simultaneously ignorant of. In Plato's Allegory of the cave, a character, possessing no knowledge of the outside world, is imprisoned within a dark cave with nothing but shadows, reflections of the actual world, projected on the cave wall.


Piranesi was adapted for BBC Radio 4, read by Samuel Anderson, and broadcast in February 2022.[19]

Awards and honours[edit]

Year Award Result Ref.
2020 BSFA Award for Best Novel Shortlisted [20]
Costa Book Awards (Novel) Shortlisted [21]
Goodreads Choice Awards (Fantasy) Nominated [22]
2021 Audie Award (Audiobook of the Year) Won [23]
Hugo Award for Best Novel Finalist [24]
Nebula Award for Best Novel Nominated [25]
Women's Prize for Fiction Won [26]
World Fantasy Award for Best Novel Nominated [27]
2022 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award Nominated [28]


  1. ^ Jordan, Justine (12 September 2020). "Susanna Clarke: "I was cut off from the world, bound in one place by illness"". The Guardian. Retrieved 16 March 2022.
  2. ^ "Piranesi". Bloomsbury Publishing. Retrieved 15 September 2020.
  3. ^ Hackett, Tamsin (24 July 2020). "Chiwetel Ejiofor to narrate audiobook of Susanna Clarke's Piranesi". The Bookseller. Retrieved 15 September 2020.
  4. ^ Shapiro, Lila (1 September 2020). "Piranesi Will Wreck You: The novel establishes Susanna Clarke as one of our greatest living writers". Vulture. Retrieved 15 September 2020.
  5. ^ a b O'Donnell, Paraic (17 September 2020). "Piranesi by Susanna Clarke review – an elegant study in solitude". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 30 September 2020.
  6. ^ Williams, Rowan (30 September 2020). "Susanna Clarke's Piranesi is a fantasy of exceptional beauty". New Statesman. Retrieved 30 September 2020.
  7. ^ a b Grady, Constance (16 September 2020). "Susanna Clarke's astonishing Piranesi proves she's one of the greatest novelists writing today". Vox. Retrieved 30 September 2020.
  8. ^ Livingstone, Josephine (10 September 2020). "Susanna Clarke's Piranesi Is a Hall of Wonders". The New Republic. ISSN 0028-6583. Retrieved 30 September 2020.
  9. ^ Kois, Dan (10 September 2020). "Susanna Clarke's First Novel in 16 Years Is a Wonder". Slate. Retrieved 30 September 2020.
  10. ^ "Susanna Clarke Divines Magic In Long-Awaited Novel "Piranesi"". NPR. Retrieved 30 September 2020.
  11. ^ Preston, Alex (4 October 2020). "Piranesi by Susanna Clarke review – byzantine and beguiling". The Observer. ISSN 0029-7712. Retrieved 5 October 2020.
  12. ^ Ditum, Sarah (3 September 2020). "Piranesi by Susanna Clarke review — the Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell author makes a triumphant return". The Times. Retrieved 15 September 2020.
  13. ^ Charles, Ron (8 September 2020). "Susanna Clarke's infinitely clever "Piranesi" is enough to make you appreciate life in quarantine". The Washington Post. Retrieved 15 September 2020.
  14. ^ "Fiction Book Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke". Publishers Weekly. 10 June 2020. Retrieved 15 September 2020.
  15. ^ Tranter, Kirsten (October 2020). "Prisons of the imagination: Susanna Clarke's surreal second novel". Australian Book Review. No. 425. p. 31. Retrieved 11 October 2020.
  16. ^ Kelly, Hillary (14 September 2020). "The long-awaited followup to 'Jonathan Strange" is even more magically immersive". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 15 September 2020.
  17. ^ Miller, Laura (7 September 2020). "Susanna Clarke's Fantasy World of Interiors". The New Yorker. Retrieved 15 September 2020.
  18. ^ Krishnan, Nikhil (6 September 2020). "Piranesi by Susanna Clark, review: a head-spinning follow-up to "Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell"". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 16 November 2020.
  19. ^ Reader: Samuel Anderson; Abridger: Sara Davies; Original music: Timothy X Atack; Producer: Alison Crawford (7 February 2022). "Episode 1". Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. BBC Radio 4. Retrieved 7 February 2022.
  20. ^ "The BSFA Awards 2020 shortlists". vector-bsfa.com. 18 February 2021. Retrieved 4 April 2021.
  21. ^ Flood, Alison (24 November 2020). "Costa book awards: Susanna Clarke nominated for second novel after 16-year wait". The Guardian. Retrieved 21 March 2021.
  22. ^ "Best Fantasy 2020 — Goodreads Choice Awards". Goodreads. Retrieved 21 March 2021.
  23. ^ "2021 Audie Awards". Audio Publishers Association. 23 March 2021. Archived from the original on 23 March 2021. Retrieved 23 March 2021.
  24. ^ "2021 Hugo Awards". thehugoawards.org. Retrieved 13 April 2021.
  25. ^ "2020 Nebula Awards". Nebula Awards. Retrieved 5 June 2022.
  26. ^ "Announcing the 2021 winner of the Women's Prize!". Women's Prize for Fiction. Retrieved 8 September 2021.
  27. ^ "World Fantasy Awards 2021". World Fantasy Convention. Retrieved 12 August 2021.
  28. ^ "2022 Mythopoeic Awards Finalists". Locus. 23 May 2022.