My Thoughts on Piranesi, Winner of the 2021 Women’s Prize

By Anne-Charlotte Fabre

I read Piranesi back in November and I’m surprised it won…

The Women’s Prize for Fiction was held last night and the short-list was made up of lots of very strong nominees including Transcendent Kingdom, The Vanishing Half, and Unsettled Ground! Ultimately, it was Susanna Clarke’s genre-defying novel Piranesi that won and took over the title from Maggie O’Farrell’s 2020 win.

I read Piranesi back in November, lured in by a gorgeous cover and the promise of a mystery and references to mythology. But I was left with some thoughts… and I have some more now.

Piranesi is a good book, don’t get me wrong, and all the critiques about it being one of the most unique and genre-defying novels of recent years are absolutely correct. I’ve never quite read a book like it and I doubt I ever will. It’s sort of a cross between Greek Mythology and Dark Academia. Set in a strange, seemingly infinite ‘House’, Piranesi is alone and spends his days exploring and mapping the ever-changing scenery of the ‘House’ and its chambers and vessels alongside his one companion, the Other. It’s inspired by the artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s famous drawings of imaginary prisons (and if you know this, it kind of gives away the plot). This book is all about the imagination and inspired by the classics, so the setting is really superb! I can’t fault Susanna Clarke for her ideas here, it’s a very enticing premise.

I wanted to love this book so badly, but I was just let down. Maybe I had set my hopes up too high for it, or maybe I was just expecting something completely different; but either way what I ended up getting only disappointed me.

My main problem with the book is that Piranesi is a very passive character, and this fits into his personality as a man fascinated with knowledge and keen to gather as much as he can, but after a while it becomes a little dull. Lots of things happen to Piranesi and we watch as he learns from these experiences, but ultimately, nothing happens and he never does anything. Even the moment of climax is a very dull point in which Piranesi gets lucky. There is a fascinating mystery at the center of this story, but because of Piranesi’s passivity it lacked any sense of urgency or importance that makes a mystery so good.

More on the central mystery plot: it isn’t so much unraveled as it is told. The explanation itself was very interesting and I found myself gripped by it (like I said, I can’t fault Susanna Clarke for her concept); but after that was given to us, it just seemed over. I knew everything I had to know and the later, smaller, reveals were predictable, so I lost interest. If I know everything before Piranesi does, then what’s the point?

After the reveal there’s Part 3 and the climax, but it all seemed to happen so quickly and no consequences followed any of the character’s actions. Not to mention that Part 1 and 2 were quite slow and hard to get into, so it’s not like anything felt like it was worth it. When I finished Piranesi I felt as though I had been told a story by someone who had a hard time starting and then got embarrassed and rushed the end.

I think I may be guilty of having too many expectations going in. Like I said, this isn’t a bad book and I rated it ⅗ stars, but the more I thought about it, the more the narrative just seemed to lose steam and fall flat.

Still, congratulations are in order for Susanna Clarke, it’s a wonderful honour to win the Women’s Prize for Fiction and I’m sure she’s very happy and proud! In case you read this Susanna, I’m sorry, but I did love the ‘House’ and I’d love to visit one day!

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