The Beloved Child

Piranesi
by Susanna Clarke,
Bloomsbury Publishing 2020

I am the Beloved Child of the House …

How else to describe this novel than as labyrinthine? Not only is it set in a physical maze-like structure but its narrator must, like Theseus, thread a path through confusing and sometimes conflicting revelations about who he is, what he’s doing there, and why his memory seems to be faulty.

He is named Piranesi by a colleague whom he thinks of as the Other, an older male who appears occasionally — usually twice a week — for an hour or so at a time, but otherwise his curious life is bound up with the House, with the seasonal tides that wash through some of its rooms, and with his journals in which, like a good scientist, he has been recording his explorations and annotating his observations.

But all is not well in the House: it is crumbling, worn away from the tides and the storms that invade the House; and when talk turns to death and killing Piranesi starts to realise that all he has taken for granted is based on uncertain, maybe even mendacious foundations.

This is a novel to read and appreciate and love without the irritation of a gauche reviewer revealing its secrets. So the best way, I think, to describe this jewel of a book is to use allusion, which is entirely fitting for a novel iself built on allusion. Think of it, say, as an Advent Calendar, in which one must open each box in the correct sequence till the final reveal, or as a pack of Tarot cards laid out one by one in a divinatory spread.

So one clue is provided by an epitaph quoting from C S Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew; another hint comes from the sobriquet Piranesi, historically a Renaissance polymath who famously produced a series of fantasy architectural designs of carceri — prisons — reminiscent of Escher’s impossible drawimgs; and the House’s cyclopean façades with their massive mythical and allegorical statues brings to mind the classic ars memoriae in which classical architectural niches are imagined as sequentially filled with mnemonic objects to aid recall of stories and rhetorical arguments.

Visually, though, what mostly springs to my mind are those wonderful Renaissance theatre sets which gave the illusion of never-ending halls and corridors, with daylight stealing in from a never quite visible sky. Into the House’s innumerable halls and vestibules Piranesi encounters birds and fishes and shells … and the bones of dead people. What does it all mean? Is Piranesi merely a lone player on a vast stage, fated to write his soliloquys in his journal because there is no audience?

Susanna Clarke has concocted for us a wonderful draught, with mysterious and subtle undertones to savour, to imbibe, to become intoxicated by. The guileless language that pervades the text is deliberately shorn of most adjectives and of adverbs to suggest Piranesi’s innocence; the capitalisation of certain nouns evokes the language of the Age of Enlightenment; the inclusion of academic references familiar from Clarke’s previous novels is intended to suggest Piranesi’s own scholarly leanings; the mention of plastic objects, for example, and the shining device consulted by the Other together impose cognitive dissonance when we consider Piranesi’s Robinson Crusoe existence.

Piranesi is a literary reliquary in which secrets have been deposited; its outside appearance is magnificent to behold, its contents delightful to contemplate; I shall hold it long in my memory.

The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.


I’ve tried to make this review as spoiler-free as possible; there will however be further discussion in a follow-up post in which I inevitably will give the game away

35 thoughts on “The Beloved Child

    1. Good plan, Lisa! Some books excite me so much I want to explore them more fully, to the detriment of the innocent reader’s enjoyment; it’s lucky though that I usually like the challenge of hinting at a work’s qualities in a review without giving away much more than a blurb would do. 🙂

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    1. Thanks, Annabel, tantalising is what I aimed for! As for the discussion I want to discuss the House and its literary antecedents further: I’d thought of a title (‘Hex and the City’) but that seems a bit glib and flibbant — “glibbant”?! — so I’ll go for something else, I think!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. This sounds wonderful, especially I think the descriptions. Must get to this sometime soon. Here I was still planning a reread of Jonathan Strange, and now there’s this. Wonderful review–I look forward to your other posts on this one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, do read this first, Mallika, it’s relatively short but immersive after the first few pages—I got through it faster than I thought and wished I’d rationed myself. Then, if you haven’t read The Ladies of Grace Adieu yet, I would go for that next before a JS&MN reread! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Good review. You’ve done it, a good review while avoiding the over-saying.

    Yes, the Theatre of the World, the Renaissance memory device. I am struggling to remember it, ironically. I have the same problem as Susannah Clark, the ole chronic fatigue, that slides in like a fog in the night, or suddenly falls like dusk at midday. As well as all its multitude of other ‘delights’.

    We do what we can, and if it takes 10 years, as here, it was worth it.

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    1. CFS is a horrible condition to fall to anyone, but maybe especially those who were once lively in mind and body. As one who is naturally lacking in drive and inimical to over-exertion (for which read “lazy”) I commiserate, Michael, even as I know that must grate on your nerves; still, I truly wish there could be an end in sight for those suffering the condition, it can only be frustrating to the nth degree.

      I read Frances Yates’ The Art of Memory (and her The Rosicrucian Enlightenment) many years ago, and keep meaning to pull them off the shelves again—such eye-opening studies for us moderns even if not all her colleagues totally agreed with her conclusions (I found them convincing, but then I’m no expert).

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I am currently reading this so must be careful not to read your next post on it unless I have finished it by then. It is a fabulous and intriguing read that has made me think of another author, Calvino – one of my favourites.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, I won’t get round to scheduling that follow up post for probably a few days so you should be okay, Alastair! I agree, it’s all you say, except I must first get on to those Calvino short stories I promised myself a few weeks back.

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  4. You make this sound much better than I thought it was! But I do like your description of it as a “literary reliquary.” Like the plot of Piranesi, I would think that many reliquaries have cruelty as part of their origin, or at least a preoccupation with trying to transcend death.

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    1. I wasn’t sure about this when I started, Jeanne, what with the language being so simplistic, but the more I read on the more I accepted this approach was deliberately contrived. And yes, reliquaries usually contain something morbid like a saint’s finger or piece of skull, and the Other’s obsessions reflect this aspect, for definite.

      As for the quality of the work as a whole it was certainly to my taste—I loved it!

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  5. I loved Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell but haven’t rushed to read this one as it sounded less appealing to me for some reason. I’m definitely tempted by your review, though, so I’m sure I’ll give the book a try soon.

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    1. The advance notices seemed to imply it was so different from JS&MN that it could be a disappointment but that is an erroneous way to approach it, I thought: would one respect a new child less because it wasn’t like its sibling? I’m so glad I disregarded the nay-sayers: this is a subtle narrative and also a marvellous, magical triumph.

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  6. Just enough information to trigger my curiosity. I’ve added this to my wishlist, and will join the list of readers aiming to avoid your follow-on post – though I do plan to retrack back to it at a later date, and compare notes. Nice post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As someone, Bart, who uses two adjectives or adverbs where one will do, and who sprinkles his own text liberally with commas, dashes, colons and semi-colons, the deliberately austere descriptions Clarke allots to the Piranesi character was to me both striking and consciously archaic, and added to the alienating, distancing effect of the first half of the novel.

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  7. piotrek

    Thanks for the review! I love Clarke’s style, “Jonathan Strange…” was a wonderful adventure, I enjoyed the short stories a lot also, and now I’m even more convinced I’m going to enjoy this one. I’ll put that on my next Amazon order!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: Fun for Monday: The Count to 10 with Me Tag – bookforager

  9. I was looking for a read for a longish travel and ended up with Piranesi thanks to your persistent recommendations. I liked it a lot, thank you for recommending it! I don’t think I will review it, as you noted it would be a pity to spoil it, but I’m glad that you did, or I might not have gotten around to reading it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad you liked it a lot, and that it especially worked for you during a long journey! It’s almost literally a spellbinding book, in my opinion, with the capacity to keep you guessing almost to the end. Magical.

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