A knock on the door on a dark, wet evening in Dublin. Scientist and mother of four Eilish finds two officers from Ireland’s newly formed secret police, Garda National Services Bureau, who are there to interrogate her husband Larry, a trade unionist who is organising a teachers’ strike.
“This feeling now that something has come into the house, she wants to put the baby down, she wants to stand and think, seeing how it stood with the two men and came into the hallway of its own accord, something formless yet felt. She can sense it skulking alongside her as she steps through the living room past the children. Molly is holding the remote control over Bailey’s head, his hands flapping in the air, he turns towards her with a pleading look. Mam, tell her to put my show back on. Eilish closes the kitchen door and places the child in the rocker, begins to clear from the table her laptop and diary but stops and closes her eyes. This feeling that came into the house has followed. She looks to her phone and picks it up, her hand hesitating, she sends Larry a message, finds herself again by the window watching outside. The darkening garden not to be wished upon now, for something of that darkness has come into the house.”
The opening to Irish novelist Paul Lynch’s Prophet Song sets the scene for a dystopian nightmare that is terrifyingly convincing. Things are falling apart. As Ireland’s liberal democracy slides inexorably into authoritarianism, a groundswell of countrywide violence is unleashed.
Elish finds herself caught within the terrible logic of a collapsing society paralysed by fear, disbelief and denial as people are silenced by tyranny. On the news, she sees the teachers march through a “dim and smoking inferno”. Police with batons are beating the marchers. A teacher is dragged by plainclothes thugs towards an unmarked car. She calls Larry but he does not answer, and when she calls again, his phone is turned off.
“It is then she looks up and it seems as though the day has come to be under some foreign sky, feeling some sense of disintegration, the rain falling slow on her face,” Lynch writes in his typically lyrical style.
When Larry disappears, she tries desperately to find out where he has been taken, but nobody will tell her anything. Added to this, her father who lives independently, is becoming increasingly confused in this new totalitarian regime. At work, she is watched through the office blinds. Her colleagues are being replaced by people in collusion with the government and she soon finds herself out of a job. Her 12-year-old son is accused of laughing inappropriately at a teacher. When her eldest son Mark also disappears, she is forced to make one impossible choice after another to save what is left of her family as the world around her comes undone.
“I wrote Prophet Song because the events in this book are happening somewhere in the world right now and the book asks the question: what if this were to happen here?”, Lynch said. The novel is both a eulogy to motherhood and an anthem for doomed nations. The setting could be Syria, Sudan, Afghanistan, but it’s all the more harrowing for being located in what we know as a prosperous country with a strong commitment to democratic values and human rights.
It could happen anywhere at any time. “I haven’t read a book that has shaken me so intensely in many years,” said Colum McCann, author of Apeirogon. “The comparisons are inevitable — Saramago, Orwell, McCarthy — but this novel will stand entirely on its own.”
This year has seen a flourishing of Irish literature, and Prophet Song is one of four Irish novels on the 2023 Booker Prize longlist. The jury called the story timely and unforgettable: “It’s a remarkable accomplishment for a novelist to capture the social and political anxieties of our moment so compellingly. In a world that is witnessing the rise of dictators, Lynch’s futuristic story is made all the more chilling for being so imminently possible. Masterful in its execution, it’s a strong contender for the win.”
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