Paul Lynch is not a political novelist, and he will “shapeshift” out of any attempt to portray him as one. This was the first thing the Irish writer told me when we met the morning after he won the 2023 Booker Prize for his fifth novel, Prophet Song, at the weekend.
“People [say]: you’re a political writer, this is a political novel. I’m, like, no, I’m not a political novelist, my book has far too many layers for that. But it has political significance.”
Prophet Song tells the story of Eilish Stack, who lives in a dystopian Ireland slipping into totalitarianism and civil war. Her husband, the deputy general secretary of the teacher’s union, is detained by the Garda National Services Bureau, a kind of secret police, and never seen again. As normality dissolves, Eilish attempts to protect her four children and her father, who has dementia, and is forced to make impossible choices as the family become refugees. The novel is written without speech marks or paragraph breaks, giving the prose a sense of urgency and claustrophobia.
Lynch began writing the book in 2018, during the Syrian Civil War, but it wasn’t a direct response to events in the Middle East. “There’s no single origin story for the book. Art begins as feeling… Even when you’re not writing, you’re connecting, you’re processing, and it’s all going on beneath the trapdoor in the subconscious.” Lynch, 46, was dressed in all-black, his shoulder-length brown hair a little unkempt (he was keen to comb it before his next engagement, a French television appearance). Though he had only had five hours’ sleep in the hours since the award ceremony, aided by a sleeping pill he packed in anticipation, he spoke fluidly.
He admitted “there were, of course, political dimensions at work that were shaping the book… We were living in a time when there was a sense of unravelling. There is still a sense of unravelling. There’s a sense that the world we’re inhabiting now is not the world that we’ve known for the last 50 or 60 years, it’s a different place. And that makes a lot of us feel very uneasy.”
Reading Prophet Song today, against the backdrop of war in Gaza and Ukraine, its timeliness is, as Lynch put it, “unmistakable”. (The chair of the judges, Esi Edugyan, was insistent that current affairs played no role in its victory.) “I met a Palestinian yesterday and she said: you’re telling our story. I’ve met people from the Ukraine who said: you’re telling our story. For me, the closer you get to myth, the more freight the story can carry.”
The novel also contains eerie echoes of the pandemic: school closures, curfews, empty supermarket shelves. Though, Lynch said, Covid-19 “didn’t really impact the book”, it was “extraordinarily odd” to watch what he had imagined begin to happen in real life. Just like his protagonist, who practises her excuses for being out after curfew, Lynch, driving to the countryside to finish the book during the pandemic, found himself “rehearsing lines for if I was stopped – the kind of lines that Eilish was rehearsing. I just thought: this is surreal.”
Days before the Booker judges chose their winner, riots broke out in Dublin after a stabbing attack outside a school was appropriated by the far right as an anti-immigrant cause. Lynch – whose previous works include Grace, set during the Irish famine, and The Black Snow, about the fallout from a farm fire in Donegal (where Lynch was raised) – was one of a record four Irish writers on the long-list this year. At the post-ceremony press conference, Lynch seemed a reluctant political commentator: he said he was “astonished” at the events in what is now his hometown, but acknowledged that “this kind of energy is always there under the surface”. He told me that Ireland’s history of violence and resistance was not on his mind as he wrote the novel: “The Troubles weren’t there. But yet, maybe they were in the shadow.”
Why, then, did he choose to set the novel in Ireland?
“Let’s say I set a book like this in Syria, then it would be about Syria. And it’s not about Syria.”
Is it about Ireland?
“It’s universal. But the quickest route to the universal is through the particular, it’s through your own world, what you know. And so I write about what I know.”
Lynch chose not to detail in the novel the precise circumstances that led the ruling party to claim emergency powers. “The politics is not the point,” he reiterated. “If I had articulated the crisis, the book would then have been about the crisis. It would appear as if I’d had a specific agenda relating to that particular politics.” He paraphrased the 19th-century French writer Stendhal: “‘Politics is the millstone around the neck of literature, and drowns it in less than 15 or 30 minutes.’ And he’s completely right about that. Nothing will kill a book quicker than a writer with a message… Politics is deeply interesting, but it’s only one lens.”
Instead, Lynch says he is “more interested in the personal cost of events”: questions such as, “What is it like for people to go through these things? What might it be like for us, if we were to allow this to happen?” In the novel’s final scene, Eilish and her children begin a dark and treacherous sea crossing. For Lynch, writing the novel was an attempt to understand – as a citizen and as a father – “why people make that decision to get on the boats… When it comes to cultures that are not our own or problems that are not our own, there is a failure of imagination to truly comprehend the personal costs that are involved in making these insane choices.”
It is striking that Prophet Song closes where most Western coverage of the refugee crisis begins: with the decision to board a small boat. “It’s not the end, at the end of the book,” Lynch said. “The reader will complete the ending.” We fear we know what happens next.
Though Prophet Song is dystopian, it’s also realist. For Eilish, the competing and chaotic demands of family life do not stop simply because there is a war on: her children still drink milk quicker than she can buy it, the baby still teethes. Why did he choose a mother as his protagonist? “Eilish arrived on to the page. I didn’t know who she was… She’s in those opening lines of the book, and I didn’t choose those sentences, they just came to me.” He likens his process of discovering her to “carving stone and the sculpture’s underneath, it was there all along”.
There is a moment in the novel where Eilish’s sister Áine, who lives in Canada, implores her to flee Ireland: “History is a silent record of people who did not know when to leave.” But Lynch suggests the choice facing civilians in war-torn countries is not so simple: “I think we all have a conversation with ourselves when we look outside at a culture or a situation, such as a war or a democratic collapse, and we say: I would have left, I would have known when to leave. And I’m asking the question: well, would you?”
Eilish has her ailing father to care for, her daughter’s hockey team is going to win the league. How will her husband find her when he is released? She spends much of the novel in a state of denial: “Because how else would she continue on? We all have to get out of bed in the morning. Optimism is useful. Hope is necessary.”
For Lynch, Eilish’s story is an exploration of free will. “When you’re in your forties, the structural things you find yourself caught up in are enormous.” Eilish is “constantly carried along” by an “enormity of forces”, overtaken by events even as she attempts to outmanoeuvre them. She tries to save her teenage son (“I’m so tired,” Lynch said. “What’s the oldest son’s name? My god!”) Mark from conscription, but “what’s been shaped around her is beyond her comprehension. She’s in the labyrinth. I’m interested in trying to get a sense of the enormity of what we’re all caught up in, our absolute fragility and, sort of, not ‘uselessness’… Give me a better word.”
Give the Booker winner a better word?
“The Booker winner hasn’t stopped talking for four hours and is losing his mind and has another six, seven, eight, nine hours of this,” Paul Lynch laughed, before finally alighting on “insignificance”. “And yet we feel and we’re alive and we need meaning.”
[See also: Anne Enright’s damaged lives]