A real-life event shocked Ireland days before Irish writer Paul Lynch won the Booker Prize for 2023. After a stabbing attack outside a primary school in Dublin which left three children injured, far-right activists took to the streets in violent protests particularly against immigration, driven by slogans like ‘Ireland is full’ and ‘Ireland for the Irish’. Mr. Lynch’s fifth novel, Prophet Song, tries to see into “modern chaos” like this.
His book imagines an Ireland which has slipped into totalitarianism and civil war, forcing thousands to grapple with forces operating beyond logic and reason. Prophet Song opens with a knock on the door as microbiologist and mother of four, Eilish Stack, is wrapping up her day. Two members of the secret police want to speak to her husband, Larry, who is a veteran leader of the teachers’ union, and not at home.
Days later, he will disappear from a rally, and Eilish will have to fend for her children, her father who has dementia, and herself; she has to find a way out of “that darkness” which has come into her life. Her sister, Aine, is in Canada, and begging her to flee: “History is a silent record of people who did not know when to leave.”
Written without paragraphs, there’s panic on every page, and a stifling feeling that this can’t be happening in Ireland. Mr. Lynch clearly wants to shake people of the West out of their stupor with his tale of “warning” — people elsewhere, in Syria, Palestine, Afghanistan, have been living this reality of course. In an interview to bookerprizes.com, the 46-year-old Lynch said he wanted to look at “the unrest in Western democracies. The problem of Syria — the implosion of an entire nation, the scale of its refugee crisis and the West’s indifference.” He couldn’t write about Syria so he “brought the problem to Ireland as a simulation.” Once he started writing, which took four years, it began to speak to multiple political realities.
The Chair of the Jury, novelist Esi Edugyan, said the “soul-shattering and true” novel captures the “social and political anxieties of our current moment with great vividness” and that “readers will not soon forget its warnings.” Though it was the bookies’ favourite to win, the choice was not unanimous, according to Ms. Edugyan. Critics too gave mixed reviews, with some praising it for speaking to the times, while others labelling it a “lazy” political novel, drawing from the Orwellian classic, 1984.
There’s a bit of George Orwell, Margaret Atwood and Cormac McCarthy in Prophet Song. Things happen to the protagonist at a hellish pace; Eilish has to face up to unthinkable loss and take unbelievably difficult decisions, propelled by a tyrannical state. In the end, the sea awaits, their only route to escape. Will they make it? The novel keeps it open-ended.
This year controversy dogged the £50,000 prize as soon as the longlist was announced with some surprise omissions, like Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead, Eleanor Catton’s Birnam Wood and Salman Rushdie’s Victory City. The shortlist led to further controversy with readers’ favourites, Sebastian Barry’s Old God’s Time, Martin MacInnes’ In Ascension and Tan Twan Eng’s The House of Doors, left off the list. Of the six in the shortlist, two were from Ireland, Mr. Lynch and Paul Murray (The Bee Sting); and the others were Chetna Maroo (Western Lane), Paul Harding (This Other Eden), Jonathan Escoffery (If I Survive You), and Sarah Bernstein (Study for Obedience).
This is the second year in a row that a political novel, backed by a small independent publisher, has won — Shehan Karunatilaka won it last year for The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, on the decades long civil war in Sri Lanka.
“I was aware,” said Mr. Lynch, “that I was addressing, in part, a modern problem: why are we in the West so short on empathy for the refugees flooding our borders?” Prophet Song, he points out, is an “attempt at radical empathy. — To understand better, we must first experience the problem ourselves. I wanted to deepen the reader’s immersion to such a degree that by the end of the book, they would not just know, but feel this problem for themselves.” To that extent, the book is successful. It is a novel for the dark times.