Written by Amy Beecham
Despite delays, Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, a novel about “what it means to be human”, has won the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021.
If you only add one book to your reading list this autumn, make it this.
Susanna Clarke’s gripping fantasy novel Piranesi has been awarded the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021, topping an impressive shortlist that included Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half and Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom to take the title.
As the book’s description explains: “Piranesi lives in the House. Perhaps he always has. In his notebooks, day after day, he makes a clear and careful record of its wonders: the labyrinth of halls, the thousands upon thousands of statues, the tides which thunder up staircases, the clouds which move in slow procession through the upper halls.
On Tuesdays and Fridays Piranesi sees his friend, the Other. At other times he brings tributes of food and waterlilies to the Dead. But mostly, he is alone. Messages begin to appear, scratched out in chalk on the pavements. There is someone new in the House. But who are they and what do they want? Are they a friend or do they bring destruction and madness as the Other claims?
Lost texts must be found; secrets must be uncovered. The world that Piranesi thought he knew is becoming strange and dangerous. The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.”
Clarke published her debut novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, in 2004 before being diagnosed with a chronic illness. In her acceptance speech, Clarke told the audience: “As some of you will know, Piranesi was nurtured, written and publicised during a long illness. It is the book that I never thought I would get to write – I never thought I’d be well enough. So this feels doubly extraordinary; I’m doubly honoured to be here. And my hope is that my standing here tonight will encourage other women who are incapacitated by long illness.”
2021 Chair of Judges Bernardine Evaristo, whose novel Girl, Woman, Other won the 2019 Booker Prize said: “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.”
On Instagram, fellow judge Elizabeth Day wrote: “Congratulations to the winner of the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction, Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. A worthy and extraordinary winner. I loved every single novel on our shortlist and highly recommend reading them all! What an honour and a joy it has been spending the last year judging this prize with these wonderful women.”
The Women’s prize, which was set up in 1996 after the Booker prize shortlist of 1991 included no women, goes to “outstanding, ambitious, original fiction written in English by women from anywhere in the world”. This year Torrey Peters became the first trans woman to be longlisted, for her novel Detransition, Baby.
The 2021 shortlist included Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, Claire Fuller’s Unsettled Ground, Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom, Cherie Jones’ How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House and Patricia Lockwood’s no one is talking about this.
Judge Sarah-Jane Mee, the news broadcaster, said it had been “really tough” to choose a winner from the six novels. “But we went for something that was totally original. We’ve had a year like no other, and we feel that we’ve got a winner like no other. It’s certainly like nothing I’ve ever read before, and we all kept returning to this book. So it was so hard to compare these books, because they were all so different and individually brilliant, but Piranesi really made a lasting impression on us.”
Mee said that Piranesi, for her, “pretty much sums up what the Women’s fiction prize is all about … And that’s that women can write about whatever they want.”
Images: Getty/Bloomsbury Publishing
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