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Booker Prize 2023 - Prophet Song by Paul Lynch

I finished Prophet Song by Paul Lynch a few weeks ago, but I could not sit down and write up my thoughts about this novel right away, overshadowed by emotion as they were, though now I do wish I’d done it earlier, with the novel still fresh on my mind. I am not sure if this was the perfect or the worst novel to read right after the outbreak of the current war in Israel and Palestine, what is clear, however, is that Paul Lynch has written a pivotal book for our times. He holds up a mirror, letting us reflect on where we are and warning us sternly of where he are headed.

Ireland is slipping into totalitarianism, slowly at first while no one is watching - until citizens open their eyes and realise they have quitely moved past the point of no return. The National Alliance party is in government and has taken control of all powers of the state. A state of emergency has been declared to abolish constitutional restraints on the executive, a secret police force has been installed for the first time in Irish history.

Eilish is waiting for her husband Larry to come home from work when two officers knock on her door looking for him. All they want to do is talk, would she please tell him to give them a ring whenever he returns? A senior official in the teachers’ trade union, Larry is very busy these days. The union is preparing a march but more and more people around him are receiving strange and increasingly menacing messages from the gardaí and the GNSB. Juggling her job as a biologist with looking after her four children and making sure her elderly father is taken care of, Eilish has little patience for Larry’s refusal to cooperate with the authorities. Should he not be looking after himself so that he can look after the family? But in the end she relents, of course her activist husband cannot stand down and let the government just do as it pleases. This last rally, and then he will take a step back. Only he never returns from the rally. Larry and dozens of others are disappeared. Not a word from them or the authorities. No one knows where they are held. No one even knows whether they are still alive.

Rights and liberties are stripped away as civil war breaks out. Scrambling to keep her job and her family afloat, Eilish has to be increasingly careful of what she says to whom. And now with Larry arrested, the whole family seems to be under intense scrutiny. Their every step is being watched and the mother of four faces some impossible decisions to protect what she has left.

“All your life you’ve been asleep, all of us sleeping and now the great waking begins.”

Prophet Song may be a dystopian novel but read the news and suddenly it will feel all too real. The way Lynch tells his story, the detail he includes, what he alludes to are horrifying in how convincing they are. I read much of this novel on short train journeys to work and would immediately be pulled into the dark tension and later the open horror of it all, struggling to re-enter my surroundings even after spending just 20 or 30 minutes in this book. Lynch writes with an urgency that creates an immediate pull, enhanced by his avoiding paragraph breaks and customary signs of dialogue. This may sound off-putting to some readers less comfortable with such literary experiments, but do give it a try, you will find your footing with his style after a few pages and soon it will seem the only natural way to tell this important story.

Style and narrative create a weighty atmosphere of claustrophobia and gloom that engulf you from the opening pages that only increases in pressure racing breathlessly towards its inevitable conclusion. The grimness of the story lingers, it stays with you when you put it down in a way that feels distinctly different from, much more physical than, the effect a moving novel would normally have on me.

Whoever comes to this book hoping for a happy end will not find it. I don’t think it is a spoiler to say to because if you’re honest with yourself, you know where this novel will lead from the beginning. And yet, the ending is shocking, perhaps all the more so for its inevitability. Maybe that is Prophet Song’s biggest strength: we have all heard the song before, we all know what will happen in the end. And it is up to us to face that reality, because we cannot prevent the worst from happening by looking away.

Paul Lynch has written a manifesto in the guise of a novel. An angry cry for empathy and an end to violence, a condemnation of all of us turning a blind eye to the suffering of others.

"that the world is always ending over and over again in one place but not in another and that the end of the world is always a local event, it comes to your country and visits your town and knocks on the door of your house and becomes to others but some distant warning, a brief report on the news, an echo of events that has passed into folklore"

Published by One World, 2023

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