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Anniversary Edition, November 2023

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Prophet Song
Paul Lynch
Oneworld Publications 2023

Metaphysical Questions within a political universe

Rachna Singh reviews Prophet Song, a book short listed for Booker Prize 2023.

 The world gives to chaos, the ground you walk on flies into the air and the sun shines dark on your head’

 ~Prophet Song

 

A newly formed secret service police. Unlawful arrests and detentions in the name of Emergency Powers Act. Erosion of civil liberties. Civil strife. All these unexpected and terrifying occurrences disrupt the uneventful flow of life in Dublin.  And caught in the midst of this turmoil is the Stack family. Eilish, a microbiologist and mother of four children, suddenly finds herself drawn into an authoritarian nightmare. Her husband, Larry, Deputy General secretary of a union fighting for the rights of teachers, is arrested on grounds of sedition and taken to an unknown destination. Many like him, suffer the same fate. Eilish, his wife, tries to keep the family together, hoping against hope that the international community would resolve the problem. ‘We don’t live in some dark corner of the world, you know the international community will broker a solution’, she assures her children. She refuses to leave her home and country, even though her sister, Aine, a Canadian citizen, arranges for her to leave the madness behind, believing that this collapse of democracy is temporary and that freedom of choice would be restored in no time. The past could then be referred to as the time when Larry went away and the time when he came back. Her father, Simon, warns her that she believes in rights that don’t exist. But slowly the belief that things would revert to normal dissipates and disintegrates. Her eldest son, Mark, to escape forced conscription by a totalitarian regime, joins the rebels. Her 13-year old son, Bailey, is picked up from a hospital where he has been admitted for surgery for a shrapnel in his head, and tortured to death; his nails pried off, his torso scarred by cigarette butts, his teeth broken, his knee drilled. She realises then that this country was not theirs anymore. Survival for her, her daughter Molly and her 6-month old son Ben, meant leaving the country, even if it was through illegal means.  So she pays the scoundrels, exploiting the situation, and the threesome make their slow, painful way, along with hundreds of others, down the only path that offers a glimmer of life and normalcy, a perilous sea journey. Eilish realises that she has been one with the darkness and to stay would be to remain in this dark ‘when she wants for them to live’. The book ends with her chanting the manta of freedom; ‘we must go to the sea, we must go to the sea, the sea is life.’

 

The book is a nerve wracking and terrifying narrative about an authoritarian regime that destroys the country and its people without any scruples.  Its theme is similar to that of George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World but the graphic imagery and urgency of the narrative, brings the torn world of Eilish’s family into our bedrooms and living rooms. We can feel the helplessness of the protagonists, we can hear the roar of the airplanes raining bombs on innocent civilians, we are one with Mark and Carole Sexton, wondering how the government has become a monster. Talking about the genesis of the book, Paul Lynch says that he began writing this book in 2018, when 'there was a feeling of unravelling in the air, a sense that liberal democracy was in peril.' This sense of foreboding and anxiety is communicated to the readers as they turn the pages of this almost prophetic book.

 

The book leaves the reader introspecting and pondering about how a democratic state with its framework of rights and duties for its citizens suddenly suspends civil liberties and even the right of the citizens to question the suspension. What leads to the creation of a regime which works on the tenet that ‘if you say one thing is another thing, and if you keep saying it over and over, people accept it as true.’ This dystopian nightmare makes us pause as it leaves us with the sense that this may as well be a prophesy of doom for our world, hitherto untouched by this tumult. It also makes us question the negative rhetoric surrounding refugees. In his interview with The Wise Owl, Paul Lynch says that his novel is about  ‘metaphysical questions but told within a deeply political universe.’ This sums up the essence of ‘Prophet Song’

 

Paul Lynch, a master craftsman, offers us an image of a world that reflects the truth of a country outside our scope and yet horrifyingly close to our world, almost encroaching upon it, like some swarthy, all-encompassing cloud . It resounds with the noise and turmoil of the war-torn Ukraine, Palestine, Israel and Syria. It could be us, whispers a voice, as we trudge through this dark landscape. After all as Lynch says, the end of the world is always a local event.

About the Author

Paul Lynch

Paul Lynch is the internationally-acclaimed, prize-winning author of five novels: Prophet Song, Beyond the Sea, Grace, The Black Snow and Red Sky in Morning. He is the winner of the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year 2018, among other prizes. His latest book ‘Prophet Song’ has been short listed for The Booker Prize 2023.

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