Susanna Clarke’s subject is magic and her own story is a magical one too. Seventeen years after her bestselling, genre-busting doorstopper Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell about two rivalrous magicians was published to huge acclaim (Neil Gaiman declared it “unquestionably” the finest English fantasy novel of the last 70 years) she has won the Women’s prize for her second novel Piranesi.
An otherworldly study of solitude, celebrating everyday consolations and the comfort of nature, Piranesi appeared with uncanny timing just as we were beginning to emerge from a period of all too real isolation.
“It’s just fabulous. I haven’t processed it at all,” the author says from a hotel room in London, after the ceremony (one of the first post-lockdown publishing bashes) the previous evening. But not for Clarke the traditional bleary-eyed morning-after interview. “We arrived back at the hotel and we just drank camomile tea and flopped.”
As she explained in a tearful acceptance speech, this was a book she thought she would never be able to write. Six months after the publication of Jonathan Strange in 2004, when she was 44, she passed out at a dinner party and hasn’t been well since. “Having written about a woman with a 19th-century illness I then seemed to fall prey to a 19th-century illness myself,” she says. “Don’t write about fairies. They don’t like it.”
She was eventually diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, which at its worst left her housebound and depressed. “Sometimes I would feel that life stretched ahead but it was kind of blank and that was quite frightening.”
An invitation on to the set of the BBC miniseries for Jonathan Strange in 2015 gave her the boost to start writing again. “I’d really ceased to think of myself as a writer,” she says. “It all seemed so long ago and far away, like something that happened to somebody else.”
Piranesi is not the much-longed-for sequel; although slimmer and quieter than Jonathan Strange, it is equally inventive, immersive and hard to pin down. The title recalls the 18th-century Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi, whose Escher-like etchings of Imaginary Prisons, with their formal elegance and impossible architecture, spaces at once cavernous and claustrophobic, conjure up the novel’s unsettling sense of recognisable and unreal worlds colliding.
If Jonathan Strange was a riotous meeting of Austen and Dickens, then Piranesi’s pole stars are Jorge Luis Borges and CS Lewis. “I found Lewis at a very impressionable age and then he sort of organised the inside of my head,” she says. “And that’s just the way it has been ever since.”
Our narrator Piranesi lives in a vast house that contains an ocean. He spends his days wandering its endless halls, communing with the birds and writing his diaries (a sort of prototype pandemic journal). He is not unhappy. In fact, he may be an advert for modern mindfulness, a sort of radiant yogi with fishbones in his hair. “The World feels Complete and Whole, and I, its Child, fit into it seamlessly.” The reader, like Piranesi, becomes a charmed captive of Clarke’s deliquescent, dream-like world.
Then there is that other house with many rooms: Christian symbolism runs alongside Borgesian labyrinths and countless nods to Narnia, like the statues lining the halls. Clarke is the daughter of a Methodist minister, after all.
While the author says she had no intention of writing a Lewis-style Christian allegory, Piranesi clearly invites interpretation. Is it a novel about writing a novel? A meditation on art? A metaphor for chronic illness? A cautionary tale of colonisation? Who is the mysterious “Other”? Who is Piranesi? Who are we?
Naturally, Clarke resists explanations, but she will say that with the character of Piranesi she set out to create an alternative to the modern psyche, “where we feel like we are kind of locked in our consciousness, inside our heads and the world is something alien and out there”, she explains. “I wanted to describe someone who is almost in communion with his world all the time.”
The seed of the novel was sown many years ago, after Clarke took an evening class in the stories of Borges, “quite an eccentric group of people, somewhere in east London”, when she was in her twenties and working in publishing. She wrote a brief outline – “five, six, seven pages, typewritten” – that would become Piranesi. “I really had no idea how to write this story,” she says now. “So I just kept it with me and every so often I would look at it.”
When she fell ill, of the many unfinished projects on her laptop, Piranesi was the one that felt “most manageable” and, unlike Jonathan Strange, required little research (she read a book on clouds). If her illness feeds into the novel, it is in positive ways, she says. “It was the growing sense that just because you are physically confined you needn’t be living an impoverished life.”
She tells the story of her aunt, who had a heart condition that meant she spent the last 10 to 15 years of her life unable to stand up for fear she may die. Clarke was given a tiny diary her aunt kept in which she would detail minute changes in the tree outside her bedroom window. “Just because you are in one room it doesn’t mean you are necessarily disconnected from the world,” she says. “That was something I think that did feed into Piranesi.”
As often in her life, she found herself “at an angle to everyone else”, during lockdown, when instead of closing down “the world just opened up”, she says. “Suddenly all my friends were on my computer and I didn’t have to leave my sofa.”
Was she struck by the timely resonance of her novel? “People have found echoes of lockdown in quite a lot of books,” she says. “It says something about literature.” As for her, after feeling very angry for a very long time, she has made “some sort of peace” with her condition.