Paul Lynch’s 2023 Booker Prize winner Prophet Song is a dark descent into a very possible future. Set in Ireland, Lynch chronicles a worsening situation of a country that descends quickly into fascism and then deteriorates into civil war. At the centre of the action is a family tenuously but ferociously held together by mother Eilish as the troubles deepen.
Prophet Song opens in an Orwellian place. A new government has taken over and it is starting to flex its police-state muscles in response to unspecified threats. When the security services come knocking on her door, Eilish can sense that something is wrong but refuses to believe how wrong. When her unionist husband Larry disappears at a protest, she still clings to the idea that normality will resume. But then her eldest son is called up and flees to the resistance and her remaining three children are put in danger. And the situation only gets worse from there.
Prophet Song is written in long sentences and paragraphs, a style that is intended to deliberately overwhelm the reader – to pull readers into Eilish’s world but also create a kind of literary repression. There is a weight to the text, a pressure that starts on page one that is impossible to escape. But this stylistic choice also overwhelms much of the lyricism of Lynch’s writing. There are passages that soar but they feel buried beneath the blocks of text in which they are interred.
Prophet Song won the Booker Prize as much, probably, for its timeliness and themes as for its undoubted literary merit. It takes what has become a reality for many in the Middle East, in Central America, in Africa and makes it everyone’s issue. Lynch wants readers to consider that if this can happen in Ireland it can happen anywhere. The question Prophet Song asks those readers whose countries being sought by refugees to consider is what they would do if those refugees are coming from right next door. In this case it is people fleeing Ireland into England. And it is an important question to ask.
Prophet Song asks readers in their comfortable Western homes to consider what their lives would be like if their world went the way of so many others. Through the story of Eilish and her family Lynch is asking for empathy for a much wider group of people, all those who have been displaced by political turmoil. So that while Prophet Song can be a hard read, it is also an important one.
For more of Robert’s reviews, visit his blog Pile By the Bed
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- The Colony (Audrey Magee) – book review
- Yellowface (Rebecca F Kuang) – book review
- Old God’s Time (Sebastian Barry) – book review
Robert Goodman is a book reviewer, former Ned Kelly Awards judge and institutionalised public servant based in Sydney. This and over 450 more book reviews can be found on his website Pile By the Bed.