REVIEWED BY DEE CROWE
(Oneworld Publications: 2023) by Paul Lynch
Prophet Song, which won the Booker Prize in 2023, is set in Dublin, but it could have been set in any city anywhere. As the book opens, we are in the midst of the unfolding story. An authoritarian government has taken power two years earlier and is encroaching inexorably into ordinary lives. This is not an overtly political novel; the state remains shadowy throughout. We experience the story through the eyes of Eilish, a respected scientist, married to a teacher and trade unionist, and mother to four children. Eilish and Larry, her husband, are uneasy but still retain a belief in the rule of law and in their rights. As Eilish says: ‘there are still constitutional rights in this country’ (p.13). But, next day, Larry is detained at a trade union demonstration, with no access to a solicitor, and he disappears.
Eilish struggles to get help for her husband, to keep her job going and to keep track of her children. The arm of the state extends its reach into the school, where the health of potential army recruits is checked, and Eilish tries to prevent her son Mark’s conscription on his seventeenth birthday. Mark runs away to join an armed uprising and Eilish frantically tries to contact him and to hold the family together, while still being in denial of the scale of what is happening. There are moments of dawning realisation: the family wedding reception where guests rise to sing the national anthem, and there is no mention of her absent husband. There is a sense of unease, whom to trust, as the outside forces encroach further into her life. The state has become the enemy of all she cared about and she herself has become an outsider, ‘other’, sacked from her job, not served in her local shop, where she is ignored as if invisible. Conflict spills onto the streets and there is a powerful scene where Eilish rushes from hospital to hospital, through what had become a war zone, in search of Bailey, her second son, who has been injured by shrapnel.
This is the story of the collapse of a society, written from the viewpoint of an individual from whom all certainties are being swept away. We journey with Eilish from her comfortable respectable life as she loses everything and eventually waits in the darkness on a familiar shore, hoping for a possible escape in a dinghy with too few lifebelts, having paid every last penny for her rescue.
This was an uncomfortable but compelling read. The language of Prophet Song is not emotional. Lynch writes in the present tense, creating a feeling of being inside what is happening. Details and small events are heaped upon each other, creating a building sense of discomfort that is almost stifling. Long sentences run into each other and there are no paragraphs, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere. That was the aim of the writer. As he himself has said: ‘I sought to deepen the dystopian by bringing to it a high degree of realism. 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’ (The Irish Post: November 2023).
I did not find Prophet Song an easy read and almost faltered, but it was worth persevering; maybe it is a good book for our time. A sense of unease stayed with me, reminding me that there are no certainties, no room for complacency; nothing can be taken for granted. And those people who stand at our shores have had lives that were torn away.
Dymphna (Dee) Crowe