I have this small bookworm tradition, where every year I save a book that I’m really looking forward, to read on Christmas day (and the 26th if it’s on the longer side). This year it was Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi.
I’m writing this blog on the 24th of December… well, you can see where this is going. I was sitting at home last night and thought, ‘Sure, why not read the first page.’ It’s a bookworms version of shaking a present, hoping to find out what’s inside the wrapping paper, ‘What harm can reading the first page do?”
Anyway, it’s no spoiler to say that I ended up reading the whole book, and with no regrets because it’s really quite beautiful.
In case you don’t know the name Susanna Clarke she a great writer who, to my knowledge, has only published one other novel, the wonderful Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. That must be 15/20 years ago now (gosh, how time flies) and it’s always surprised me that I haven’t seen more of her name in bookshops, because she writes in such a natural and unaffected style.
As you read S.C., you feel that she has written with a total focus on producing a book that she personally wants to read; rather than being swayed by how any potential reader might want the story to progress.
Piranesi does precisely that too; it goes where it needs to go, you might not agree with how the plot develops and twists, but I can say (with the benefit of hindsight) that the story takes the right turns, at the right times, and leaves you exactly where you need to be as you close the final page.
Piranesi’s particular gift is the haunting quiet it instils in your mind. The book is a very quiet; set in a quiet place, told from the perspective of a quiet character, on his quiet journey, and you feel that quiet within you too as you read, which only highlights the extraordinary skill in the writing.
I particularly love the way that Susanna Clarke writes magic. There’s something so quintessentially English (not even British, but English) in her style.
It’s tough to explain what I mean by that – and it’s likely a statement that a lot of readers might disagree with – and the only way I can think to explain is by offering the example of the difference between J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara (a series of books I personally dislike, because of how similar, criminally so, they are to the LOTR).
In Tolkien’s (I’m going to say ‘original’) books the magic is dialled down and understated; something that is just part of the world that the story inhabits, rather than being a driving force behind the plot.
Susanna Clarke captures that feel too, in both Piranesi and Jonathan Strange; magic just happens to exist in the world within her pages, but you’re not reading a book about magic; you’re reading a story about a world where magic happens to exist.
I think the biggest compliment that I can give Piranesi is that I sat and read it in a single sitting (something I haven’t done in quite a while). It’s not the longest book in the world, but even so you don’t sit and read 250 pages on the spin unless you’re really enjoying yourself.
When I finish a book, I always ask myself: Who do I know that would like this book? – and with Piranesi I’d be comfortable recommending it to absolutely anyone.
It’s well written; accessible to all levels of readers and has a particular beauty, that leaves you feeling good.
Piranesi is just a really good book.
[Note: no one probably cares, but for Christmas day I’ll now be reading David Mitchell’s latest book ‘Utopia Avenue’. I can only hope it’s half as enjoyable as Piranesi]