Paul Lynch’s Booker Prize-shortlisted Prophet Song is a work of speculative fiction that poses the following question: what if the things we see on television happening in far-off places occurred in a country in the West? Or, more specifically: what if a populist party transformed Ireland into a totalitarian state and plunged the country into civil war?
A critique of the West’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis, this scenario is intended to shake us out of our complacency. It is by design an unrelenting, bleak story. In Lynch’s hands, it is also an uncommonly affecting one.
When we meet Eilish Stack, a scientist and mother of four whose husband, Larry, is a teacher and trade unionist, she is only beginning to understand the true nature of the new regime. We glean basic facts. After passing new emergency powers, the National Alliance Party has begun disappearing people. Eilish continues to function – getting kids to school, checking on her ailing father – but when Larry fails to return one day from a rally, we follow Eilish on a descent into hell.
Throughout Prophet Song, what is happening to the country remains as obscure to us as it does to Eilish. Lynch’s concern is how a person might live under such conditions. What does learning your husband has been indefinitely detained do to a person? To your psyche? To your body? What about when your son disappears too and your neighbourhood becomes a war zone?
Lynch is a distinctive stylist and Prophet Song is full of tightly controlled poetic language. As he tracks Eilish’s increasingly dissociative state, the rhythms of his run-on sentences contribute to the claustrophobia and uncanniness: “When she crosses the street she does not move within her body but is watching herself as though from the window of the house, thinking herself onward, she begins to feel her way into her body, the measure of the body in the air, the hand knocking on the door.”
Eilish’s struggle with her teenage children becomes a central concern. The ordinary emotional turmoil of parenthood, the confusion of loss and pride as children pull away, is intensified under these circumstances and vividly rendered.
The Kafkaesque nightmare of Prophet Song, in which a woman wakes up to find her husband gone and local teenagers transformed into inscrutable officials, is disturbingly credible. The hope of the book is found in the beauty of its language and in its humanity.
Bloomsbury, 320pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 11, 2023 as "Prophet Song".
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