Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: Piranesi

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Piranesi, Susanna Clarke’s second novel, has been called ‘a puzzleand a ‘mystery’ with ‘revelations‘ that unfold throughout the narrative. I think this sets up expectations for the book that mar the reading experience (encouraging the reader to rush to discover secrets), so I’m going to say straight off, I didn’t find any unexpected twists or shocks in Piranesi. Indeed, I felt like I knew what was going on almost from the start, although it gradually took firmer shape. On the other hand, I wasn’t sure that we were ever really meant to know what was going on, for certain; Piranesi has something of the resonant, deliberately frustrating quality of Nina Allan’s novels, perhaps especially The Silver Wind. It didn’t enchant me quite as much as I expected, but the world that Clarke creates within Piranesi’s House is so vivid and troubling that it will take me a long time to forget it.

Our narrator tells us about the limited world within which he lives, a labyrinth of marble halls that ascend into the clouds and are intermittently washed by tides, and which are filled with statues. Only fifteen people, he believes, have ever existed, and only two of those are still alive; himself, and a man he calls ‘the Other’, who visits him occasionally, only to disappear again ‘to far distant halls’. In the journal entries that make up the first couple of sections of this book, part of the fascination of the narrator’s character is figuring out how things might be if you thought such a place was the entire world. He is greatly reverent of the dead, for example, able to pay each of the collections of bones he discovers individual attention, because there are so few people to remember. As the plot gathers pace and the narrator starts to unpick things he believed were true, this aspect of the novel recedes, but there’s a haunting oddness about Piranesi that remains even when we return to a more mundane world at the end. The epigraph from The Magician’s Nephew, the only Narnia book I’ve ever enjoyed, is totally apt. 

Piranesi is an odd book to find on the Women’s Prize longlist. Even when the Prize has branched out to embrace more speculative fiction, it’s tended to stay closer to realism. Nevertheless, I completely welcome its presence here, and I hope this heralds more science fiction, horror and fantasy on future longlists, as well as all those genres that fall in between.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected seven titles that I do want to read. This is number three. I’ve already read The Vanishing Half and Transcendent Kingdom.

14 thoughts on “Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: Piranesi

  1. I’m sitting on the fence about this one. I’ve always been drawn to books that are heavy on mood and atmosphere but I can only take so much ambiguity; also, with such a llimited cast of characters, I’m afraid I might start feeling a bit claustrophobic. Since Piranesi is relatively short, however, I should probably stop speculating and just spend an afternoon reading it, particularly as you’ve made it sound so attractive! Thanks for the review.

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    • It’s a tricky one that, for me, fell just on the right side of the line. I also don’t like too much ambiguity or unexplained happenings, but I think Piranesi explained just enough for me to be OK with it. I love limited casts, though, so that probably helped! It took me a little while to get into it but after the 25% mark, I found it a very quick read.

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  4. Great review! Good point about the puzzle/mystery descriptions of this book perhaps setting up wrong expectations. Piecing together the unknowns in the first half of the novel was really my favorite part of the read, but I have to agree that the reveals feel obvious by the time they arrive and that it’s much more about the journey through them than the answers uncovered. Nevertheless, I’m glad to see you enjoyed this one, and while I did like the Narnia set as a whole I have to say The Magician’s Nephew was by far my favorite also, and I too particularly appreciated that epigraph! 🙂

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