Paul Lynch’s timely Booker winner is a novel written to jolt the reader awake | Books

With Paul Lynch’s Prophet Song, the judges have chosen perhaps the most timely and urgent book on the shortlist – a novel explicitly plugged into global strife and political tectonic forces. But it’s also the very intimate, elemental story of one woman’s love for her family, and her desperate attempts to hold on to the immediate world around her in the face of rising chaos.

Lynch imagines an Ireland that has fallen under fascist control. Eilish Stack is a Dublin scientist and mother of four, busy with work, family and her elderly father, averting her eyes from the increasingly worrying news reports. Then grim reality comes knocking at her door: the newly created secret police arrive to interrogate her husband, Larry, about his work as a trade unionist. Along with many others, he is disappeared into the maw of the state. Their teenage children want to take to the streets – to wear the colours of protest, to march, to fight back – but all Eilish wants is to keep them hidden and safe. As civil war breaks out, and the streets of Dublin are filled with roadblocks and snipers, she remains frozen in a state of denial. Her sister, who lives in Canada, begs her over the phone to try to escape. “History is a silent record of people who did not know when to leave.”

If Prophet Song is a dystopia, then, like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s one whose events are already happening around the world. Families like Eilish’s are suffering in Ukraine, Syria, Palestine and elsewhere, refugees fleeing political violence, women’s rights violated across the globe, and the far right on the rise in Europe. The recent rioting in Dublin, and the shock and disbelief that greeted it, give the novel an uncomfortable extra timeliness.

Lynch has described his book as “an attempt at radical empathy” – using fiction to break through the normalised, it-couldn’t-happen-here complacency of a western society saturated in global news. It is written in the present tense, in claustrophobic slabs of prose, with long immersive sentences increasing the feeling of inevitability. There are no quotation marks or paragraph breaks either – there is no breathing space for Eilish, no pause or respite in the nightmare.

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There’s an incantatory power to Lynch’s prose that’s reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy, but harnessed to a vision that is shockingly everyday, even as it summons the end times. This is a novel written to jolt the reader awake to truths we mostly cannot bear to admit: “All your life you’ve been asleep, all of us sleeping and now the great waking begins.”

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