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First principles in dystopia

BOOKS | Booker Prize–winning novel depicts characters ground down by power but steadfast in hope


Paul Lynch David Levenson / Getty Images

First principles in dystopia
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BACK IN NOVEMBER, when Paul Lynch’s dystopian novel Prophet Song (Atlantic Monthly Press) won the 2023 Booker Prize—given each year for the best novel written in the English language by a writer from the United Kingdom or Ireland—much was made of the book’s political implications. This makes sense on the surface: It’s a dystopian novel about the collapse of a not-very-far-in-the-future version of Ireland, replete with government overreach and popular uprising.

Yet, Lynch himself has claimed that the book is not, ultimately, a political one, but is instead a metaphysical novel. This is a heady claim, but I see his point.

Prophet Song is told via the point of view of Eilish Stack, a professional scientist, wife, and mother of four who finds her comfortable life upended as the National Alliance Party and its security police force Garda run roughshod over the rights of the Irish people. Early in the novel, Eilish’s husband, Larry, who works for a local teachers union, is arrested, ostensibly for having spoken out against the new regime. He leaves for work one day and doesn’t return. Poof.

At first Eilish assumes the authorities made a mistake. Larry’s no ­provocateur. He’s a family man. A professional. A normal guy. Surely Garda will admit they nabbed the wrong suspect. But the days pass and Larry doesn’t return, and, what’s more, she doesn’t hear from him at all. Then rumors spread that other locals are missing, too. Suddenly, the streets are alive with protest, Garda grows overtly violent, and a rebellion rises. It’s civil war.

This is a fairly familiar setup for the genre. But Prophet Song is not about soldiers or politicians or protesters. It’s the story of one mother’s attempt to hold her family together as everything around her crumbles. And indeed Eilish is a remarkable, complex creation. She’s resilient, yet always on the edge of despair; hopeful, but not confident. She’s dedicated, come what may, to her children even as she realizes that she can’t ultimately save them from the conflagration. As much as this is the story of a social and political crisis, it’s also about parenting teenagers, caring for aging parents, raising a toddler, and finding ways to keep food on the table.

Lynch’s prose … allows the reader to linger in the complexity of Eilish’s dread, yet still rushes forward in a surprisingly brisk way.

Lynch’s prose, which comprises long claustrophobic sentences and contains almost no paragraph breaks, allows the reader to linger in the complexity of Eilish’s dread, yet still rushes forward in a surprisingly brisk way. It feels uncomfortable at first, but the book quickly becomes a page turner of forward momentum, even as it avoids the usual artifice that most page turners contain. Lynch, Ireland’s fifth winner of the Booker, challenges the reader to linger, to settle in, to accept the form in which he’s working. The reader willing to do so will be rewarded with a remarkable experience. (Reader beware: The book does contain a few instances of strong language as it sinks into the point of view of its trapped protagonist and her tormented world.)

Since the Booker announcement, people have compared Prophet Song’s themes, tone, and mode of storytelling to Cormac McCarthy’s canon. It makes sense. Lynch’s novel is similar in many ways to McCarthy’s own award-­winning novel, The Road. But Prophet Song also resembles the work of George Orwell, Emily St. John Mandel, and Kazuo Ishiguro, all of whom explore the inner life of souls ground down by “the sharp, insistent rapping” (to use words from Prophet Song) of power and progress.

Lynch’s novel is full of dread, but it’s neither hopeless nor nihilistic. For in focusing the novel on the commitment of a dedicated mother, he invites the reader to dwell in the path of the propulsive wonder of love, an experience that is, in its finest moments, downright awe-inspiring. It’s no wonder Lynch felt the need to remind us that he was, ultimately, writing about the first principles of things.

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