Dive into the dystopian | Review of Booker-shortlisted ‘Prophet Song’ by Paul Lynch

The Irish author juxtaposes the world’s problems onto his own country to create a chilling portrayal of our descent into chaos

Updated - November 20, 2023 10:05 am IST

Published - September 20, 2023 07:11 pm IST

The impact of a totalitarian government on people who cannot conform to such an ideology is devastating.

The impact of a totalitarian government on people who cannot conform to such an ideology is devastating. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

A three-year-old washes up on a beach while his family is trying to flee a war. A father traces his son to a prison three months after he disappears but when he comes face to face with him, the security guard asks them to speak in a language alien to them — all that is heard are sobs. A mother cannot fathom why her minor son was killed. These are real-life stories from Syria, Kashmir, Palestine. Now imagine if such a thing were to happen in a western country, say Ireland.

Moved by events like the conflict in Syria, the plight of refugees, and the West’s deep-rooted indifference, Irish writer Paul Lynch juxtaposes these happenings onto his own country to find out what it will be like to experience such a possibility first-hand, in his Booker-longlisted fiction, Prophet Song.

The novel begins with a knock on a door in the dark, as a mother, Eilish Stack, is busy seeing through the end of day with her children. Two men, “almost faceless in the dark”, ask if her husband is home. Larry Stack is the deputy general secretary of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland and has been negotiating for better conditions for educators. “It is nothing to worry about,” the two men tell her, but Eilish can’t shake off the feeling that “something has come into the house… she can see it skulking alongside her as she steps through the living room past the children”.

That ‘something’ is a government that has turned totalitarian. The impact of this on the people who cannot conform to such an ideology is devastating. Larry is taken in for questioning and does not return home. Eilish, a microbiologist, struggles to keep her job, and family, together. Their eldest son, Mark, joins the rebels who try to push back against the government, and yet little will change when a temporary takeover happens: one forceful unit replaces another and Eilish can’t help observing that she “wanted the regime out but not to be replaced by more of the same”.

Life under tyranny

The vivid descriptions of life under tyranny are a chilling portrayal of the descent into chaos. The Garda National Services Bureau has unprecedented powers for the maintenance of public order and when somebody’s behaviour looks like they’re inciting hatred against the state, they have to fight against “an absolute that has the power to make a yes into a no and a no into a yes”.

Author Paul Lynch

Author Paul Lynch | Photo Credit: thebookerprizes.com

Eilish is appalled at the growing number of supporters of the fascist regime, and wonders why the untruths are accepted so easily. She also knows that it is an old idea — “If you say one thing is another thing and you say it enough times, then it must be so, and if you keep saying it over and over people accept it as true.”

She has to make difficult choices in the face of unfathomable tragedy and clings on to snatches of hope. For instance, “she sees how happiness hides in the humdrum — how it abides in the everyday toing and froing”. Eilish looks at nature and marvels at how a tree abides the dark season. In the end, as escape looms in the shape of the sea, and with only two of her children by her side, readers hope against hope for a safe journey.

Reminiscent of the dystopian fiction of George Orwell, Margaret Atwood and Cormac McCarthy, Lynch’s Prophet Song, as he told Bookerprizes.com, begins with a question Larry is faced with: how do you prove that a democratic act is not an act against the state? Seeking to deepen the dystopian by bringing in a high degree of realism, his book can be “read as a warning. It can also be read as a simulation of events that are occurring somewhere in the world right now”.

Prophet Song
Paul Lynch


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