Prophet Song

Image of Prophet Song: A Novel (Booker Prize Winner)
Release Date: 
December 12, 2023
Atlantic Monthly Press
Reviewed by: 

“singular Paul Lynch, the prophet raging at the wickedness and sorrow in the world, warning us that the road to redemption travels through compassion and love, but it surely is not an easy journey to take.”

The word masterpiece is tossed about like a frisbee these days in book reviews, but Paul Lynch’s new novel, Prophet Song, is precisely that, a book that will move readers to angry tears now and a hundred years from now. For logical reasons, Prophet Song will be compared to Orwell’s 1984, for like that novel Lynch’s narrative speaks to what might come if free people fail to pay attention to ominous signs. Lynch grew up in County Donegal and lives in Dublin. And the dystopian Prophet Song is set in that city. All that might seem to make him an Irish writer, enough said, and quoting Yeats could seem appropriate here, focusing on a writer singing of “what is past or passing or to come.”

But the truth is Lynch is a world writer, and Prophet Song is a warning that goes far beyond the boundaries of Ireland. As with Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World, Lynch’s novel is a canary in the mine, utterly a plaintive cry that readers dismiss at their own peril.

Nothing good usually comes from a hard rapping on the door in the middle of the night. No happy dispatch slides from a messenger in a black car parked in front of a character’s house. That truth is dramatized with an exponential power in Prophet Song. The principal characters in Lynch’s novel are an ordinary, happy, upper-middle-class family—Larry Stack, the deputy general secretary of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland; Eilish Stack, a microbiologist and mother of four:  Mark, about to turn 17; 14-year-old Molly; a 12-year-old son, Bailey; and a toddler, Ben.

When the knock comes like an explosion in the early evening, Eilish’s husband is not yet home from work. The two men who enter her house and change her life forever are members of the Garda National Services Bureau (GNSB), something akin to the Gestapo in this new Ireland where the Emergency Powers Act has silenced individual rights and castrated the laws in the quest to “maintain public order.” This could be 1984 or it could be America 2024. The GNSB is reminiscent of Orwell’s Thought Police.

Anyone who questions the government in this new Ireland is soon arrested. Anyone who protests or organizes workers disappears. Early in the story, Larry is taken, and no word is heard of him again. Then Mark, about to turn 17, the age the new government uses to compel young me to fight in their army, slips into the night. Eilish desperately tries to protect him, but Mark has determined that his only recourse is to fight with the rebel forces. Like Larry, he disappears from Eilish’s view.

Eilish realizes that her world has gone through a seismic shift and that “happiness hides in the humdrum,” a piece of alliterative wisdom worth far more than the weight of five words. Eilish’s sister, Aine, in Canada, wants her to leave, telling her that “history is a silent record of people who did not know when to leave.” She is right, of course, and the reader can see it is the right advice. It is a Sophie’s Choice, though, and it is impossible for Eilish to contemplate leaving her absent son and disappeared husband. She stays in the hope things will change and her husband and son will return.

Prophet Song is a novel filled with terror, a narrative that terrorizes the reader like a dark dream, one that is impossible to shake, one that you do not want to shake, a dream that makes you not want to wake up but rather fall back into it, into the unsettling sleep it creates beneath the razor-sharp prose. Like the horrible soundlessness of the Great Hunger of the mid-19th century in Ireland, the brave new world of Lynch’s imagining demonstrates what a vicious, authoritarian government can do—“the brilliance of the act, they take something from you and replace it with silence and you’re confronted by that silence every waking moment and cannot live, you cease to be yourself and become a thing before this silence, a thing waiting for the silence to end, a thing on your knees begging and whispering to it all night and day, a thing waiting for what was taken to be to be returned.”

Eilish Stack is everywoman; she is each of us, perhaps as brave and loving as any of us can hope to be in the face of terror, and even though she is “nothing . . . but a speck of dust,” she is also “a small mark of endurance.” She speaks to the reader of that endurance, of that “law of the human heart.” Like the titular heroine of Lynch’s 2017 novel Grace, Eilish sees that “out of terror comes pity and out of pity comes love and out of love the world can be redeemed, and she can see that the world does not end, that it is vanity to think the world will end during your lifetime in some sudden event, that what ends is your life and only your life, that what is sung by the prophets is but the same song sung across time, the coming of the sword, the world devoured by fire . . . the fury of some god incarnate in the mouth of the prophet raging at the wickedness.”

There are echoes of Cormac McCarthy’s Biblical prose in these sentences, but this is singular Paul Lynch, the prophet raging at the wickedness and sorrow in the world, warning us that the road to redemption travels through compassion and love, but it surely is not an easy journey to take.