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Susanna Clarke's Piranesi - Women's Prize for Fiction 2021 Winner

By Hannah Davenport and Caitlin Evans


In its twenty-sixth year of honouring great female writers, the Women’s Prize for Fiction has yet again crowned an excellent work of literature as the winner of 2021’s nominated cohort. Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi has deservedly taken the international charts and the judges’ hearts, by storm. The novel was announced as the winner during a Youtube livestream of the Women’s Prize for Fiction finalist ceremony, in which each shortlisted author was given an honourable mention (and a fancy bouquet!) before Susanna Clarke was welcomed to the stage to deliver an award-winner speech.


The ceremony was hosted by the chair of judges, Bernadine Evaristo, a female novelist whose literature has been gracing the charts and sparking thoughtful, empowering discussion for years. Joining her on the judging board was podcaster and author Elizabeth Day, presenter and journalist Vick Hope, writer Nesrine Malik, and broadcaster Sarah-Jane Mee. When discussing their joint selection criteria for the winning title, Evaristo said the following:


“We wanted to find a book that we’d press into readers’ hands, which would have a lasting impact. With her first novel in seventeen years, Susanna Clarke has given us a truly original, unexpected flight of fancy which melds genres and challenges preconceptions about what books should be. She has created a world beyond our wildest imagination that also tells us something profound about what it is to be human.”


Piranesi is a fantasy novel. It was published by Bloomsbury in 2020 and is Clarke’s second novel, published sixteen years after her debut. The interesting title is a reference to Giovanni Batista Piranesi, an 18th century Italian artist who made a series of prints depicting vaults, underground staircases and machinery. This is an allusion to the setting of the novel, a place called “The House.” A place which is home to infinite halls and vestibules containing everything from the sea and clouds to a whole collection of statues. Along with another occupant of The House, “The Other”, Piranesi is in search of “A Great and Secret Knowledge” which is hidden somewhere in The House. Piranesi records his life throughout in-depth journal entries after a series of strange occurrences involving The Other and inconsistencies in his own journals, Piranesi begins to question the world he inhabits. When he begins to gain awareness of other living beings in The House, sinister truths are unveiled.


An intriguing aspect of Clarke’s novel is the relationship between the sweeping imaginative landscapes that are painted for the reader and this contrast with Piranesi’s inner world and his perception and exploration of it. The novel has of course been widely praised with The Guardian’s Autumn Highlights saying that Piranesi “reminds us of fiction’s power to take us to another world and expand our understanding of this one.” The Daily Telegraph wrote that the novel is a “startling novel of austere magical realism.”


Susanna Clarke is a Nottingham-born novelist. After attending St Hilda’s College at Oxford University, she began a career in publishing with Quarto and Gordon Fraser. As a wandering spirit, she spent two years teaching English as a foreign language in France and Spain before returning to England. Clarke began working on her debut novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell in 1993, a story about magicians in 19th century England. This was eventually published in 2004 and went on to win a Hugo Award. Clarke has written a number of short stories throughout her career, publishing an anthology called The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories.


In 2006, it was reported that Clarke was suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome and that this was slowing the progress of her next novel. For some years, she attempted to write a sequel to her debut but eventually decided it was becoming too complex and returned to an earlier project which would eventually become Piranesi. Thus, the novel is a result of passion and determination, and the award-winning quality of writing serves as a testament to never give up in the face of physical or mental adversity.


In this way, Piranesi upholds the aims of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, in selecting novels which will inspire female writers of the now and of future generations. It joins an eclectic list of previous winners, with Clarke’s name ranking among the likes of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ali Smith and Marilynne Robinson. Alongside this honour, Clarke also received a healthy cheque for £30,000 prize from an anonymous prize donor and a limited edition bronze figurine by Grizel Niven entitled “Bessie,” which will no doubt become one of Clarke’s most prized (pun intended) possessions.


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