Women’s Prize for Fiction: Susanna Clarke wins for ‘truly original’ comeback

British author Susanna Clarke has won the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction for her second novel Piranesi.

The fantasy work is the long-awaited follow-up to her acclaimed 2004 debut Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

Piranesi, a mystery about a man living alone in a labyrinthine house, beat five other books to the £30,000 prize.

Novelist Bernardine Evaristo, the chair of the judging panel, said she and her fellow judges “wanted to find a book that we’d press into readers’ hands”.

She added: “With her first novel in 17 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.”

Bernardine Evaristo and Susanna ClarkeIMAGE SOURCE,GETTY IMAGES
image captionFellow author Evaristo (left) said Piranesi “melds genres and challenges preconceptions”

Clarke collected her award, a bronze figurine dubbed the Bessie, at a ceremony in central London on Wednesday.

The author, who fell ill while promoting her first book and was eventually diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, dedicated her win to other women “incapacitated by long illness”.

“As some of you will know, Piranesi was nurtured, written and publicised during a long illness,” she told the audience.

“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.”

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‘Intriguing, immersive and experimental’

By Rebecca Jones, BBC arts correspondent

You are unlikely to have read anything like this fantasy novel.

Piranesi lives mostly alone in the House, with its labyrinth of vast halls and thousands of statues, with tides that surge through its staircases and clouds that move through the upper rooms. In his notebooks, Piranesi makes a careful record of what he sees.

Susanna Clarke creates an intriguing, immersive world in order to explore themes including solitude and memory. Stylistically experimental, the novel has been described as “a complete and utter trip” by Bernardine Evaristo.

And at the end, there is a real twist you do not see coming. Well, I certainly didn’t.

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Clarke was one of two British authors up for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction (which was previously named after its former sponsors Orange and Bailey’s) along with Claire Fuller, who was nominated for her fourth novel Unsettled Ground.

The other nominees were US authors Patricia Lockwood and Brit Bennett, the Ghanaian/American Yaa Gyasi, and Barbadian writer Cherie Jones.

Maggie O’Farrell won the prize last year for her novel Hamnet, based on the fictionalised life of Shakespeare’s son.

Established in 1996 to celebrate and promote fiction by women, the prize is open to any woman writing novels in English.

Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
image captionBertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan starred in the Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell TV series

Clarke’s previous book was longlisted for the Booker Prize and was named Time magazine’s best book of 2004.

It was turned into a BBC TV series in 2015 with Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan playing Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell respectively.

Set in the 19th Century, it told of two men who brought magic back to England during the Napoleonic wars.

Her other works include The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, a collection of short stories that was published in 2006.

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