Book Review - Prophet Song

In 2003, the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) was founded by the female relatives of dissidents who had been imprisoned or disappeared by the Cuban government. In March 2011, the arrest of schoolchildren for painting anti-government graffiti in Daraa, Syria, sparked protests. In April 2022, Elena Baybekova, a maths teacher from southern Russia, was sacked after a student objected to “political conversations” during her class. The consequences of totalitarianism are much the same the world over. 

Paul Lynch has evidently done his research for his Booker-longlisted fifth novel: the authoritarian nightmare he has created in Prophet Song is utterly believable. Those deemed enemies of the state are arrested or simply disappear; relatives are damned by association. Teachers who don’t toe the line are publicly shamed, while members of the judiciary are controlled, silenced or replaced. Soldiers open fire on peaceful protests. The secret police stub out cigarettes on bodies. Even children are at risk. 

Lynch’s dystopian novel is set not in some distant country but an imagined near-future in the Republic of Ireland. The recently elected National Alliance party has declared a state of emergency; Larry Stack, a Dublin-based teacher and trade union leader, is called in for questioning, then arrested without charge. His wife, Eilish, a scientist and mother of four, is left confronting societal collapse and trying to protect her family. After Larry disappears, the story is told from her perspective. Thugs are hired to intimidate the family, while mutual distrust spreads between neighbours. 

The country rapidly becomes a militarised state, which eventually descends into civil war. This allows the regime to commit further atrocities against citizens it suspects of supporting the rebels. Eilish watches in disbelief, telling her daughter: “We don’t live in some dark corner of the world, you know, the international community will broker a solution.” Written in long sections of continuous prose, the lack of paragraph breaks and speech marks adds to the sense of narrative urgency. 

After being called up for national service, Larry goes into hiding with and Eilish’s eldest son Mark. His mother is desperate to smuggle him over the border, but he wants to join the “free” army. Her sister Áine begs her to bring the family to Canada, yet Eilish is reluctant to leave Larry and her father Simon, who is suffering from dementia. 

In a book focused on the political, the private moments between father and daughter are some of the most poignant, perhaps because we can identify more easily with Eilish’s frustrations and fear as she observes him — “seeing at work the neurological weather, a zone of low pressure giving to sudden inclemency, in five minutes’ time there will be sunshine”. Prophet Song offers a powerful account of the reasons people flee their homes, and why some are forced to take irregular routes or a perilous journey by sea to reach a place of safety. Lynch describes the unremitting horrors of war, but his fiction also directly challenges the negative rhetoric surrounding refugees by articulating and illuminating their trauma. 

This is a compassionate, propulsive and timely novel that forces the reader to imagine — what if this was me?

Originally published by the Financial Times