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Paul Lynch’s ‘Prophet Song’ a resounding warning

The Irish novelist makes a family’s experience of a takeover by an authoritarian government disturbingly real.
 
Paul Lynch, winner of the 2023 Booker Prize, poses for the media with his trophy following the presentation ceremony in London on Nov. 26, 2023. The Booker Prize is awarded to the best sustained work of fiction written in English and published in the UK and Ireland, in the opinion of the judges. Lynch won with his book "Prophet Song."
Paul Lynch, winner of the 2023 Booker Prize, poses for the media with his trophy following the presentation ceremony in London on Nov. 26, 2023. The Booker Prize is awarded to the best sustained work of fiction written in English and published in the UK and Ireland, in the opinion of the judges. Lynch won with his book "Prophet Song." [ ALBERTO PEZZALI | AP ]
Published Dec. 7, 2023

It starts with a knock on your door.

When Eilish Stack answers a knock at her home in a Dublin suburb, the two plainclothes police detectives say they want to speak with her husband.

“It’s nothing to worry about, Mrs. Stack. We don’t want to be taking up any more of your time.”

What they will be taking is everything.

Paul Lynch’s new novel, “Prophet Song,” was published this week in the U.S. It came out earlier in the year in the U.K. and just won the prestigious Booker Prize there.

It’s the fifth novel by Lynch, an Irish author and journalist, and it is stunning in every sense of the word. In masterfully controlled and powerful prose, he yanks the reader headlong into the experience of living in a country that is taken over by an authoritarian government — slowly, slowly, and then suddenly and completely.

As the book begins, Eilish is a microbiologist working in a management post; her husband, Larry, the one the police need to talk to, is an official in the teachers union. They have four kids: teenagers Mark and Molly, preteen Bailey and surprise baby Ben.

The book’s setting is a dystopian version of Dublin, but a convincingly realistic one, very much like any contemporary Western city. Eilish’s days are occupied with the minutiae of her job, the rote tasks of motherhood, the comforts and irritations of a long marriage. It’s only later that she “sees how happiness hides in the humdrum, that it abides in the everyday toing and froing.”

Larry isn’t home when the detectives knock, but he goes, grudgingly, to answer their questions. The government is putting pressure on the union, so it’s no surprise they want to speak to him, and he tells Eilish not to fret about it.

But he spends longer hours at work, and talks less about it, and some of his colleagues are questioned as well.

Then one day Eilish is at work when she sees on TV a union protest march, which she knows Larry is part of, being attacked by mounted police, the marchers beaten, gassed, carted away.

There’s no answer when she tries to call him.

In what will be only her first encounter with a brutal bureaucracy, Eilish tries to discover his status and whereabouts, only to meet with bland, blank denial.

A union leader comes to talk to her at home — phones and email are too easily hacked — and assures her, “All this will blow over.”

She flares from numbness to anger: “The state is supposed to leave you alone, Michael, not enter your house like an ogre, take a father into its fist and gobble him, how can I even begin to explain this to the kids, that the state they live in has become a monster?”

Eilish is also the caretaker for her father, Simon, who still lives on his own but is showing signs of dementia. When she expresses her fears to him, he asks her whether she believes in reality.

“We are both scientists, Eilish,” he says, “we belong to a tradition but tradition is nothing more than what everyone can agree on — the scientists, the teachers, the institutions, if you change ownership of the institutions then you can change ownership of the facts. …”

Larry’s disappearance is only the first loss. The nightmare grip of the takeover will grow ever stronger; as neighbors turn on one another and the economy crumbles, Eilish struggles with how to protect her children and, before long, with how to survive.

The book’s pace is relentless, and Lynch makes Eilish’s shattered emotions manifest in her frequent sense that she is separated from her body, watching herself do things — a trick of the mind to shield her from increasingly unbearable trauma.

One of the most effective choices Lynch makes in the book is leaving the government itself opaque. Its policies and motives are unimportant. If you are the one whose son has shrapnel in his head, only its actions matter.

Countless novels have described the horrors of civil war and the ruin it wreaks on civilians. But most of them give the reader distance — they describe a war that is removed from us by history, distance or both. What happened to those people is terrible, we think, but it could never happen here.

“Prophet Song” is a brilliant, disturbing reality check. Lynch insists that we understand “the end of the world is always a local event.”

Prophet Song

By Paul Lynch

Atlantic Monthly Press, 320 pages, $26