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Diane ScharperMarch 14, 2024

Paul Lynch’s powerful fifth novel, Prophet Song, won the 2023 Booker Prize, considered the most prestigious award for fiction in the English-speaking world. The vote was unanimous, according to Esi Edugyan, the chair of the Booker judges, who called the novel “a triumph of emotional storytelling,” praising its vividness and the way it creates “a visceral reading experience.”

According to Lynch, the novel’s plot was inspired by the Syrian Civil War and the plight of those seeking refuge from the destruction and death occurring in Syria. In an interview, Lynch said that he was especially troubled that the West denigrated the needs of the refugees—and in many cases denied them entrance.

Prophet Songby Paul Lynch


320p $19


Lynch noted that his novel has moral value, but it is expressed subtly because he prefers complexity and depth to cant and certitude. Lynch added that he brought “a high degree of realism” to the novel 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.” All of which suggests the visceral experience noted by the judges.

An internationally acclaimed Irish film critic and novelist, Lynch is the author of four earlier books and has won several prestigious writing awards. These include the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award for his third novel, Grace, which resembles Prophet Song in its metaphysical nuances.

Both books exemplify literary fiction. They use poetic devices throughout the text as well as titles that suggest spiritual meanings that play out in the narrative. Both narratives are set in Ireland during a time of crisis. In Grace, it is the Irish Famine. In Prophet Song, it is a watershed moment set in the near future when the Republic of Ireland descends into totalitarianism.

The difference between the two novels, though, lies in their historicity. In Grace, the Irish Famine is based on a historic event that Ireland survived. But the crisis in Prophet Song is an invented one, and no one knows who will survive or whether there will be any survivors at all. The issue of survival adds intensity to an already haunting and apocalyptic story.

Lynch’s title suggests a connection to “The Prophet’s Song” by the British rock band Queen, in which the lyrics warn listeners that the world is about to end. Lynch also offers allusions to the prophetic books of the Bible. At the story’s end, Lynch refers to the Book of Ecclesiastes, with its notion that all is vanity.

The story focuses on the Stack family, living in the Republic of Ireland during contemporary times as the country falls into totalitarianism. No one knows what exactly has happened to cause this descent.

Is it something to do with a mysterious pandemic and with a government clampdown to slow the spread of the virus? Is this virus possibly Covid-19? Molly, the only daughter in the family, spends a lot of time disinfecting door handles and light switches. Or is it something to do with the Troubles? The family doesn’t seem to be religious, although they are deeply spiritual. (In the Republic of Ireland, 15 percent of the population now describe themselves as Nones.) Or is it politics—perhaps a party’s right or left wing is seeking to exercise more power than it legitimately has? Lynch leaves the answers ambiguous but suggests all play a part.

One minute, everything is normal, with both parents working, the baby needing his nappy changed, and the three older kids going to school, playing sports, watching television, teasing each other, back-talking to their parents and studying their cellphones. The next minute, there is a loud knock on the front door.

Elish, the novel’s main character, has a presentiment of danger that, like her porch light, seeps into her consciousness and into that of the readers. The story is told from Elish’s limited point of view. Sometimes her perceptions are accurate, sometimes not. They are almost always alarming.

The police want to talk to her husband, Larry, who is not yet home. Later, Larry participates in a peaceful protest and is arrested as a political prisoner. Elish tries to find him and endures a Kafkaesque maze of officials and bureaucrats. Readers are caught in suspense as they wonder if Elish has missed a clue, made a wrong turn or confided in the wrong person.

Elish, a scientist, suddenly loses her job for no reason other than the politics of Larry’s arrest. She finds herself the sole caretaker of her four children and her elderly father. Gradually, the plot coalesces into questions of whether to flee to Canada and seek asylum with her sister or to stay in Dublin and wait for her husband to return—although it seems unlikely that he ever will.

From the first page, the story creates a palpable sense of urgency that never lets up as the family and the country lurch from one crisis to the next. The government assumes emergency powers. The oldest son and then the second son are lost and found and lost again.

Elish sends Mark, her oldest son, to live with a neighbor so he can cross the border to Northern Ireland, but she doesn’t know the neighbor as well as she thought she did. Bailey, the middle son, tries to help people wounded during a bomb attack and winds up with a piece of shrapnel lodged in his head. Worried about an infection, Elish insists that he receive medical treatment. Then he too is lost. When she finally sees him again, she realizes that she has made a catastrophic mistake.

Although Simon, Elish’s father, is slipping into dementia, he is at times very prescient. When he warns Elish that she should take her children to Canada and live there with her sister, it seems that he knows more about their circumstances than does Elish, who doesn’t want to leave Ireland because she still hopes Larry will return. She dreams about him frequently and often talks to him as if he were present. Simultaneously, she worries about seemingly vapid issues—such as her concern that leaving Ireland will disrupt the children’s schooling or their sports activities.

Simon asks questions that deserve answers: He asks why there is now a secret police force in Ireland. No one knows the answer. No one knows who is in charge or who has issued these new rules. But Simon’s questions are usually ignored, which deepens his mental problems.

Everything that can go wrong gets worse for this family. A good intention continually yields a bad choice. The story reads like the verses of W. B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” as “things fall apart” and “the centre cannot hold.” As the “rough beast…/ Slouches towards Bethlehem,” we as readers are mesmerized, wondering who that beast is—and if he’s the enemy, could he be a metaphor for us?

Lynch doesn’t specifically reference Yeats in the novel, though some of his lines hint at the poem. But he does discuss the connection in an interview on the Booker website, where he refers to the collapsing society’s effect on Elish as she experiences “the blood-dimmed tide [that is] loosed”—a searing image from the poem.

The novel ends as what is left of the family tries to escape on a lifeboat. Elish, still trying to understand the meaning of her situation, has a flash of insight as to what her experience has meant.

“Out of terror comes pity and out of pity comes love and out of love the world can be redeemed again,” she says, echoing the moral insights that play out in this compelling novel.

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