This book is a slow, beautiful read into how to solve the puzzle box of identity under turbulent circumstances.

Disclaimer: This is a review, and as such will contain opinions, spoilers and (often) general shit talking. (If you talk about what you don’t like about a work, you learn a lot. When you think through a work with the stakes presented to you by the creator, by the context of the work, you learn a lot. I review things, not because I love to dislike things, but because dislike contains rich and vital information for the process of experiencing something, but I cannot access it without interrogating it.) So, if you don’t want to have this thing spoiled for you, or don’t know how to behave when a person on the internet, that you don’t know, has opinions that don’t line up with yours, this review is not for you. It’s also not for the author/creator of the work. Please and thank you.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke is a very literary work.

If you’re a genre reader, my guess is, you’re not going to like this.

We spend the whole book in super close POV of the protagonist, Piranesi, as he lives a simple life that has a lot of repetitiveness in it.

This book is full of descriptions, and I can see how this is going to be very off-putting to some readers.

I found it delightful.

Piranesi is like the antithesis to this trend of self-serious and to-genre-market writing the bookshelves are so full of. (Piranesi was also picked up for an animated adaptation, which I’m looking forward to!)

And for that alone, for reminding me that writing doesn’t have to be so perfect, so self-serious, so… so… the creative work you produce doesn’t have to be criticism-proof.

I know, I know, children, here we don’t create creative work because we want it to be perfect, we create it because it allows us expression, gives us freedom, and is a conduit of love and joy – but that doesn’t make us immune to those dark little voices whispering in the back of our mind.

And whenever you can come upon a work of creativity that pulls you in and feeds your soul, carries you away for that brief moment in time… treasure that moment and carry the gratitude for having experienced it with you into your own life.

But I digress.

The audiobook was a great experience.

Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers a beautiful performance that is as convincing as it is heart-warming.

His delivery of the material really makes you feel that you’re there with Piranesi, in his head, in his heart, seeing the world through his eyes.

I found this an easy book, specifically because to focus is so narrow, even if it involves a lot of impossible architecture.

Going in, I didn’t know anything about the book beyond the fact that I’d saved it in my bookshelf, but I quickly found myself deeply immersed in the world as Piranesi saw it.

Because of the very limited point of view, it was almost like a puzzle box and you just have to accept things at face value as they come to get to the resolution.

The writing very much gave me that feeling of being in Piranesi’s head, seeing the world as he saw it, experiencing things as he did.

This very much reminds me of what it felt like to watch Castaway for the first time – the natural world around you moves very slowly when there are practically no other people around, but I found that absence of general society very relaxing.

Not that I’d wish to live as Piranesi, but it captured that quiet and slow pace of life very well.

This story was a deep dive into identity and belonging.

Especially, finding identity and belonging after you’ve had them stripped away, like with Piranesi.

I’ve touched before on the topic of how other people aren’t always able to witness or accept a change in you as a person, and how they then use outdated definitions for you.

Deadnaming is an example of this.

Deadnaming is when a person calls a transgender or non-binary person by a name they used prior to transitioning, such as their birth name. Deadnaming may be unintentional, or a deliberate attempt to deny, mock, or invalidate a person’s gender identity.

Piranesi, while neither trans or non-binary, experiences this once he reunites with his family (and most of the rest of society, with the exception of Sarah Raphael who quite easily accepts what she initially sees as a delusion for survival as his true identity).

While he has adopted this new identity as a result of his experiences, and is still finding out who he really is, his family and society see him as Matthew Rose Sorensen.

This inability to accept Piranesi’s new identity is something he has to reconcile with more than his family.

The interesting thing is that he allows them their delusion while they see his new identity as his delusion, as a result of having a mental breakdown.

In a way, both parties agreeing to accept each others’ delusions can be seen as a metaphor for how we can be born into families and groups that we can grow out (but not leave or change).

What makes it easier for Piranesi to let them continue to call him Matthew Rose Sorensen, is that he has accepted that’s who he once was. He even describes it as having Matthew Rose Sorensen within him, dormant or dead, and Piranesi takes on the duty of being the caretaker, the vessel, of this Matthew Rose Sorensen, just as he cared for all the dead in the halls.

And while he once was Matthew Rose Sorensen, and he once was Piranesi, in the end he has to figure out anew who he is, because he refuses to be defined as a victim by the things that were done to him.

Following Piranesi through his daily life in the halls is a very calm and peaceful experience, and if you want a lot of action in your books, this will probably feed boring.

But it almost felt like a little vacation for my neurodivergent and longing-to-live-in-the-country self.

There wasn’t much happening, and even when big plot twists take place, they don’t happen quickly. And I think it was that which made it feel more real, because it wasn’t shoved into a strictly formulaic action beats arc where things are always happening.

There was a lot of time to process things, to think things through, and the set-ups were long in the coming.

This was a very atmospheric read, and I think the thing that’ll stay with me will be how Piranesi spoke to the animals and how the sea came into the halls.

Because it’s that presence of the sea, the way it feels and smells and sounds, is one of those things I dearly missed when I was living far from the sea. And that intimate relationship with the sea came through in the writing really well.

Piranesi’s journey also felt very familiar to someone who has moved out of her country of origin to live somewhere else, and then moved back only to experience reverse culture shock.

Returning to your home country after living abroad can be a complex experience.

I know I felt a sense of alienation because I’d changed during my time away.

It was like coming back to a place that was familiar yet somehow unfamiliar.

I found myself noticing cultural differences and feeling disconnected from people who hadn’t shared my experiences abroad. This created a feeling of being out of place or not fully belonging, even though I was “back” where I started.

I had no idea what reverse culture shock was until I experienced it myself.

If you’re new to the concept, common experiences with reverse culture shock include:

  1. Feeling like a foreigner in your own country: after becoming accustomed to another culture, returning home can make you feel like an outsider as you notice differences in customs, language, and social norms that weren’t apparent before.
  2. Disillusionment with home culture: returning home reveals aspects of your own culture that you hadn’t noticed before, leading to disappointment and frustration.
  3. Difficulty reconnecting with friends and family: relationships may have changed during your time abroad, and it can take time to re-establish connections with loved ones who may not fully understand your experiences.
  4. Reverse homesickness: Just as you may have felt homesick while abroad, you may experience a longing for aspects of your host country and the life you had there.
  5. Identity crisis: Living in a different culture often leads to personal growth and self-discovery. Returning home can prompt questions about your identity and where you belong.

I mean, reverse culture shock is in a way a natural part of the transition process for returning expats, but it is challenging to navigate.

And in the end, Piranesi goes through a journey that felt familiar to me with reverse culture shock, where he experiences conflicting emotions, because while he misses the House he’s also someone who was abducted and lived under extreme hardship for several years.

He knows that he can’t go back, doesn’t want to go back, but it’s difficult for him to feel at home “back” where he started.

I interpreted the end as Piranesi finally opening himself up to the possibility of both loving the House and finding a place in the new world, accepting that he is neither of these past people he once was and understanding that the only way to heal and move forward is to create something new again.

Because you can never erase your own past, it’s the path by which you got here, and the past is indifferent to whether you like it or not. It merely is.

But having a difficult or different past from the present doesn’t preclude you to go somewhere different in the future. In fact, that’s the prerequisite.

Because without your past, you wouldn’t be who you are right now.

I realise I’m getting philosophical with this, but maybe this gives you some idea of what it’s like to read the book.

So, in the end, no matter what kind of past you have, the best thing you can take from it is gratitude for it bringing you here, now. Making you who you are here, now. And for showing you ideas about how you want to shape your future.

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