Reviews Revisited – Piranesi

This is a transcript of my most recent podcast episode – listen here.


Hello and welcome to Resurrected Reviews Revisited, part of the Will You Still Love It Tomorrow podcast. I’m Annie and, in each Reviews episode, I pick something I’ve reviewed sometime since 2005, reread or rewatch it, and then compare my reactions. Fair warning: there will be spoilers.


This month, my pick is Piranesi by Susanna Clarke.


Before revisiting it, my recollections of my original experience of encountering this book are as follows:


Most things, these days, are still split for me between pre-pandemic and post-pandemic – and Piranesi feels like a pre-pandemic read, though I could be wrong about that. I’m thinking 2019, but it might be more recent. I know I read it in hardback, which is rare for me – and I don’t remember why I would be excited enough about a Susanna Clarke book to buy it in hardback, because I know I didn’t like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, or the Ladies of Grace-Adieu.


And then it turns out that this is also complete nonsense, since my review of Jonathan Strange from 2005 reads as follows:


“The first half was entertaining, the second half was compelling. I certainly didn’t expect it to get all dark, angsty and exciting, but it did – or at least it did, compared to the first half!


There was a great deal of poetic justice in the conclusion, which was very satisfying, but also some things left unresolved. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear tell of a sequel, and I’m certainly not surprised to learn that New Line are making it into a film.


My favourite characters, whom I feared were being reduced to bit parts, all got a great deal more attention in the second half, so I was very pleasantly surprised. What I thought was going to be a throwaway amusement turned into an extremely enjoyable read.


Highly recommended.”


Anyway, I very firmly remember loving Piranesi, but now I’m scared to reread it in case that’s not true, either – or in case my experience this time around isn’t as good. I remember the main character spends most of the book wandering around a vast network of rooms with statues in, and that it’s unclear for most of the story what’s going on. I also remember being very affected by the ultimate explanation, but I don’t remember why.


It turns out it wasn’t published until September 2020, so my recollection of reading it pre-pandemic must be false. *sigh* Am I ever going to discover my memory is correct about anything ever again?


The blurb on GoodReads is as follows:


“Piranesi’s house is no ordinary building: its rooms are infinite, its corridors endless, its walls are lined with thousands upon thousands of statues, each one different from all the others. Within the labyrinth of halls an ocean is imprisoned; waves thunder up staircases, rooms are flooded in an instant. But Piranesi is not afraid; he understands the tides as he understands the pattern of the labyrinth itself. He lives to explore the house.


There is one other person in the house—a man called The Other, who visits Piranesi twice a week and asks for help with research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. But as Piranesi explores, evidence emerges of another person, and a terrible truth begins to unravel, revealing a world beyond the one Piranesi has always known.”


Here’s what I thought on revisiting Piranesi in 2024.


I also ended up going in with some trepidation because one of the BookTubers I’ve discovered recently – Elliot Brooks – talked quite a bit last year about her experience of reading Piranesi and really didn’t like it. She said she was engaged to begin with, trying to figure out what was going on, and came up with a theory that the book was about something she termed ‘really important’ – and then she was massively disappointed when the real explanation didn’t fit that theory and felt much less impactful to her.


Since I couldn’t remember on starting to read the book what the real explanation was, I was a bit worried I might have a similar experience this time around. That said, I don’t tend to try and work out what’s going on in weird books – I much prefer to simply go along for the ride and let it all play out as it happens.


But, necessarily for this project, I’m approaching my rereads from an analytical standpoint, and didn’t get past page 2 before I started having even more misgivings about choosing Piranesi as a subject. The blurb on the back of the book starts: “Piranesi lives in the House. Perhaps he always has.” And yet, on page two, he compares the experience of being overwhelmed by the confluence of Tides to “when the Sea sweeps over you and drowns its own sounds”. So he must remember a time before being in the House, when he swam in the sea…


Do I really want to pay such close attention to this book? Will its remembered wonder and majesty, in fact, unravel under scrutiny?


And then, in the second entry of the book, I’m questioning the credibility of the situation further since Piranesi gives an overview of the size, nature and layout of the House, how far he has explored and what he’s doing in terms of cataloguing it. He knows all of this and would have been recording it as he goes along, so the only reason to give a summary at this point (when there’s no indication that this is the start of the record) is for the author of the book (Susanna Clarke) to describe it to the reader.


Oh dear…


The same can unfortunately be said for the third entry, in which Piranesi details all the people he believes to have lived in the House, or be living there with him. He would surely have recorded his discovery of the various skeletons at the time he found them, especially since one of the years described in his later list of journals is called “the year I counted and named the Dead”. Similarly, if he and the Other meet twice a week, their previous interactions would surely have been mentioned before, along with their join search for the Great and Secret Knowledge the Other believes to exist somewhere within the House. Also, why does the Other have a name for Piranesi, but not offer up a name for himself?


And the fourth, in which Piranesi lays out his reasons for writing in his notebooks (admittedly addressing these entries to a specific person, whom he calls The Sixteenth Person) – but again, surely this would have been done at the very start of the record, which is several years ago by the start of the story. Why would he describe his system of records and list all the different journals and what dates they cover partway through the tenth one?


I often say I dislike books that are meant to be journals because they never accurately represent how people write in journals (describing direct action in detail and recording conversations verbatim) – and, sadly, this is apparently also true of this book… I am very sad now…


I continued to have issues of this kind with every entry but decided to stop itemising them, partly because it was upsetting me, but also because it would make this episode very long…


It’s interesting that Piranesi uses no contractions, either in his journal entries or in his conversations with the Other – but the Other does in his speech.


From his first direct appearance in the story, it’s obvious that the Other is from the outside world and knows that Piranesi doesn’t remember what’s outside. He also seems to know things about Piranesi’s life prior to living in the House, as he tries to get Piranesi to remember something about Battersea. I assumed trauma-related amnesia that has led Piranesi to retreat into some kind of fantasy – and that the Other is one of his carers or a psychiatrist, attempting to interact with him by indulging the delusion to a certain extent.


But that doesn’t track with the Other’s evident fear of the Tides, or his obsession with his weird ritual to summon the Great and Secret Knowledge, so my theory is quickly made very unlikely.


But the Other can definitely move freely between the House and outside world and bring in things like sleeping bags, shoes and sandwiches.


I love the fact that Piranesi explains away the appearance of all these things as the House providing extra supplies to help the Other survive as he doesn’t fish or collect seaweed and so would likely die without them. Rather than feeling put out that the House gives these things to the Other, but not to him, Piranesi is just grateful as otherwise he feels he would have to spend a lot of valuable time looking after the Other himself!


I had been wondering why Piranesi didn’t ask the Other more questions about where he goes, how he finds all the things, or what he knows about the House and its nature – but then I realised Piranesi knows deep down that questioning things from outside will force him to remember things and he doesn’t want that. He wants to keep the status quo, so he doesn’t poke at things that confuse him or that don’t make sense. Which is useful for the narrative as it allows the story to unravel at a much slower pace than it would otherwise.


It took until about pg 60 for me to start to see the beauty in the story and become properly absorbed in it – the same time Piranesi has his revelation and gives up on trying to find the Great and Secret Knowledge:


“The House is valuable because it is the House. It is enough in and of itself. It is not the means to an end.”


This felt like it was speaking directly to me and my experience of reading the book. So I stopped counting pages, trying to figure out how long it would take me to finish, and focusing on getting to the end to find out what would happen, and just started enjoying the story for its own sake.


It’s sad that Piranesi is so trusting, because it seems obvious that the Other isn’t being straight with him and is perhaps actually manipulating him for his own gains – but Piranesi is confident of his integrity.


“One thing remained that I could absolutely rely on: the Other was honest, noble and industrious. He would not lie.”


But we have no evidence as to why he feels this way, or whether or not it’s a reliable opinion. And, in fact, he almost immediately contradicts it himself:


“The World (so far as I can tell) does not bear out the Other’s claim that there are gaps in my memory.”


It becomes increasingly clear, despite the Battersea incident, that the Other is not invested in helping Piranesi break free from his situation, since he tries to make Piranesi promise to hide if he ever sees someone new in the House, and emphasises that Piranesi must not speak to them if he does. The Other also doesn’t want to challenge Piranesi’s belief that there is nothing outside the House – in fact, he seems bent on maintaining the situation as it is for some reason.


I’ve always liked narratives where the reader understands more than the narrator – and this one is no exception. I find it impressive how authors can use a character’s voice to describe something that is obvious to us, but not to them – as when Piranesi gets close to the exit of the labyrinth and hears what is clearly a road in the distance, but doesn’t recognise it as such.


When Laurence Arne-Sayles appears and starts talking about how he found this Distributary world and kept sending people here to study it, even though they kept dying, it cements the House as real and makes it feel like The House of Leaves in some ways.


The Other tells Piranesi that 16 will cause Piranesi to doubt him and Piranesi is appalled – but he’s already started to doubt the Other in various ways by this point.


It hit quite hard when Piranesi went through his journal index and found entries in his own handwriting that he didn’t remember ad that made no sense to him. It felt just like when I look old reviews I know I wrote but that run contrary to my recollections or are about things I would swear I’ve never read or seen!


When one of the earliest journal entries is provided and we read about Arne-Sayles and his secretive, elitist group of students exploring esoteric pursuits, it’s almost like a description of The Secret History – very definitely dark academia vibes.


So the book shifts quite clearly from a possible presentation of extreme psychosis to a definite portal fantasy. Which is possibly what Elliot Brooks saw as a move away from an important and impactful explanation to a less interesting one. But for me, it’s the other way round because I’ve been oversaturated with ‘it was all in their head’ narratives and I’m more intrigued by original portal fantasy.


Piranesi reacts violently against all the references to the outside world, dismissing the as nonsense because he doesn’t want to be forced to remember what he’s suppressed, so there’s still an aspect of the other type of narrative in his almost wilful rejection of reality and connection to the past.


Piranesi’s first encounter with 16 was also the first time the issue of unrealistic journalling pulled me out of the narrative for quite a while.


When 16 calls out, Piranesi writes: “16’s voice was not at all what I was expecting.” And then he says his mind “was too full for sleep.” Presumably, the surprise is that the voice is female – but there’s no reason for him not to explain that in his journal, except for the author of the book to conceal that from the reader. The same goes for all the things filling his mind – if they’re preventing sleep, the best way to get them out of his head would be to write them down in his journal…


When Piranesi finally works out that the Other lured him into the House to act as his slave and has been his enemy all along, he does so because he pieces together sections of his journal that describe the ritual that initially transported him to the other world. But the journal pages are scraps of paper he found earlier in the book, which he says have different handwriting on from his own. And he also isn’t able to fit them together when he first collects them. And yet, when he comes to realise they are missing pages from his journal, he puts them together with no problem – and it turns out he wrote them after all. So that doesn’t make sense – unless I missed something along the way and they weren’t the same bits of paper…


It’s interesting that, once Piranesi discovers he is actually Matthew Rose Sorensen, and reads about his enslavement by Valentine Ketterley, he still thinks of Sorensen as being a separate entity. Which, I guess makes sense, as his Piranesi self has been created through new experiences in the House that are untainted by memories of his life before.


He says:


“The House in its mercy had caused him to fall asleep – and it had placed him inside me.”


“I worried in case he woke up completely and his anguish began all over again.”


It’s sweet that he has such compassion for this person he once was, but whom he feels little connection to – and that it’s Sorensen’s anguish he worries about, rather than the fact that Sorensen waking up would essentially mean Piranesi’s death.


It’s also lovely that, when he realises that a great flood is coming, he spends three whole days moving all the skeletons he has been visiting and caring for over the years, to ensure they won’t be damaged by the water.


It seems a bit unlikely, given the effects of the House on the memory, that Piranesi would have been able to memorise the reconstructed journal entries in order to be able to quote them to Ketterley, though it is an effective way for him to reveal his recovered knowledge.


It’s satisfying that it’s Ketterley’s obsession with defeating Sarah Raphael and his total lack of interest in Piranesi’s cataloguing of the House’s attributes that result in his downfall. He doesn’t listen to Piranesi, so he doesn’t retain the knowledge of how the tides work or where the flood will go. And he prefers to keep firing at them with his gun than to secure his own escape by getting into the boat. And that’s why he gets swept away.


I love the fact that Raphael doesn’t try to argue with Piranesi when he says he doesn’t consider himself to be Matthew Rose Sorensen. She accepts what he says and doesn’t challenge him, even though her whole purpose in being there is to retrieve him and bring him back to his family. It shows a tremendously compassionate appreciation of his state of mind and a good understanding that he’s clearly not ready to hear about the outside world, let alone consider leaving.


She offers him options and makes gentle suggestions that might nudge him in the direction of reclaiming his original identity, but she doesn’t push it when he says he can’t leave.


And then, after she leaves for the day and Piranesi lies down to sleep, the end of that entry reads:


“My last thought before I fell asleep was: He is dead. My only friend. My only enemy.”


And that definitely got to me.


As did Piranesi asking Ketterley for forgiveness for being angry with him when he finds his body and promises to look after it, the way he does with all the others. Then he finds the boat and tell it, “I wish that you had saved him.”


So, despite everything he’s found out about Ketterley, Piranesi still wouldn’t have wished him harm. But then, in a way, Ketterley created Piranesi and, without him, Piranesi would never have existed in the first place.


So, it’s a complicated mental situation to navigate.


There’s a fantastic exchange when Raphael comes back and tried to persuade Piranesi that the outside world is better because he’d be able to see real rivers and mountains, rather than just representations of them in the statues and he gets annoyed because she’s suggesting the statues are inferior, when he considers them superior because they are perfect, eternal and not subject to delay.


And Raphael demonstrates her incredible emotional intelligence once again, by responding, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to disparage your world.” And later, she asks if it would be disrespectful to take photos.


She also acknowledges that there are benefits to living in the world of the House, when she starts telling him about the outside world and admits that it’s not always pleasant and there’s a lot of sadness in it. But then she realises the House isn’t perfect, since Ketterley and Arne-Sayles both committed crimes there and polluted it with their evil – though, of course, it was only the arrival of humans there that caused that to happen.


And it’s Raphael’s explanations and introduction of information from the outside world that destroys Piranesi’s experience of the House as beautiful and peaceful, which is very sad.


Piranesi writes: “Perhaps even people you like and admire immensely can make you see the world in ways you would rather not.” And that’s certainly true.


In the last section, the narrator disassociates himself from both Sorensen and Piranesi, though he describes them as both being a part of him. He feels Piranesi as a very strong presence, and Sorensen as merely hints and shadows.


But he says that Sorensen’s family “have Matthew Rose Sorensen back – or so they believe. A man with his face and voice and gestures moves about the world, and that is enough for them.”


Which I find desperately sad – for them and for him.


They also see his description of being in the House as a metaphor for a mental breakdown – and I supposed it is possible to interpret the whole book that way, as I remembered being a much more definite explanation of it. But the fact that there are other people who come and go in the House, and who do and say and have things that the reader will recognise as coming from the outside world, but that Piranesi doesn’t, strongly suggests to me that we’re not supposed to see him as an unreliable narrator and that they really are all in a labyrinth in some other kind of dimension.


But it’s not all sad, because the narrator learns how to come and go to the House as he pleases, so he can visit the dead and the statues – and he also takes James Ritter with him, the guy Arne-Sayles previously trapped there and who also loved the House. So that’s really lovely, since they share a unique experience of being there and can go there together.


It’s a beautiful conclusion to a book that is beautiful throughout in many ways – and I was affected by the ending, though perhaps not as much as on my first reading.



Diversity data:

It’s interesting that the book won the Women’s Prize for Fiction when the only female character doesn’t appear until the last 40 pages.


Also, despite Piranesi identifying several of the skeletons in the House as female, and pondering how more people might be produced to continue habitation of the House when he is only aware of two living humans, both male, he still automatically assumes the 16th person will also be male, even though neither Ketterley nor Arne-Sayles gender them when talking about them.


The old man who turns up to talk to Piranesi partway through is coded as queer, since he talks about a lot of other men only in terms of their attractiveness and in a somewhat predatory way. We later find out that he used one of his female students to drive him around to pick up young men, and he was arrested for kidnapping and perhaps killing some of them. Which is disappointing in terms of queer representation.




I remember thinking this was absolutely amazing when I first read it (which may turn out not to be true) – but it didn’t affect me that way this time around. I enjoyed it and I think it’s well-written in a lot of ways. But there were aspects of it that really didn’t work for me and it didn’t sweep me along the way I think it did before. Which is a bit sad. This time, I’m giving it 3.5 stars.


I had a memory of Piranesi’s amnesia being related to the violent death of someone he loved – but I think I’m conflating it with The Bridge by Iain Banks, in which the fantasy world the protagonist exists in is actually just inside his own head and he’s retreated there to avoid having to deal with the trauma of his loss. Or maybe that’s not actually the plot of that book, either… I really don’t know any more! And yes, upon looking it up, I am actually wrong about that too…


Oh, and I was right about Elliot’s reaction to the book – she did think it was all going to be in Piranesi’s mind and was disappointed when it wasn’t – but what was interesting about her theory was that she thought the book was examining the lack of care offered to people with mental health issues, as reflected by the disrepair and danger of the House.


Anyway, looking back to my original review of Piranesi, it turns out it was in January 2021, so I was also wrong about it being pre-pandemic. Ah, well…


Here’s what I thought the first time around:


“I was excited to hear of Susanna Clarke’s new novel, Piranesi, and it got to the top of my reading pile very quickly after I obtained it. It’s a lot shorter than I expected, given the doorstop size of Jonathan Strange, but I enjoyed it even more.

It’s an odd book – very dreamlike and narrated by someone who is in a very odd situation, which feels to him completely normal. Piranesi lives in the Eternal House, a vast set of gothic halls, filled with countless amazing statues. He fishes in the flooded lower areas and pays homage to the thirteen skeletons that are scattered in various places.

While the reader spends the book wondering who he is, how he got there and what’s going to happen next, Piranesi is quite content with his life, which makes for a very interesting conflict between tension and tone. It’s masterfully done – for a story where very little actually happens and we spend all our time with a protagonist who is largely unconcerned with the mysteries of his existence, it’s a compelling read that had me up at 6am this morning to read the last 60 pages.

The book reminds me of a sort of cross between The Slow Regard of Silent Things (similar dreamlike quality and protagonist who forges a life in an odd environment) and The House of Leaves (weird, vast house of giant halls with an underlying sense of foreboding). And it really works!”


So, perhaps not as resoundingly enthusiastic response as I remembered – and I actually gave it four stars, not five, on GoodReads. It’s interesting that my review references The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss, as I’d originally intended to revisit that as well, in this episode, as being a similar type of book. I was worried I wouldn’t have enough to say about a novella to make a long enough episode – but you’ll be very glad to know I’m not about to embark on a whole new review of something else right now!


And that’s it for this episode of Reviews Revisited.


Next month, I’m going to be revisiting The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon, which is going to be interesting, because I believe I DNF’d it the first time around…


Many thanks to Cambo for our theme music. And thank you so much for listening. If you like the show, please rate and review it wherever you get your podcasts.


And if you have any comments, or if you want to tell me about a time you revisited some media, and whether or not you still loved it afterwards, you can email me at I’d love to hear from you.


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Lastly, please join us for the next main episode of Will You Still Love It Tomorrow in two weeks to hear what happens when I get Dave to watch the 2014 live-action Hercules movie, starring Dwayne Johson. Will Dave like it at all? And will I still love it after our discussion? I’m looking forward to finding out! I think it’s going to be a fun one!


Bye for now!


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