If there’s one thing you should know about me, it’s that I’m a Goodreads fanatic. Since 2022, I’ve diligently logged every book that I’ve read and, when I’m feeling creative, written reviews as well. For better or worse, I’ve got this reading thing down to a science. So of course, when it came time to decide what my first book of 2024 would be, I knew I needed to pick something good. And what better way to start my year than with the novel that won the 2023 Booker Prize: Paul Lynch’s Prophet Song.
The Booker Prize is an award given every year to the best piece of English-language fiction published in the United Kingdom and Ireland in a given year. It is one of the literary world’s most prestigious awards; even making the shortlist is an outstanding achievement. The 2023 shortlist was revealed in late September, and Prophet Song was announced as the winner on Nov. 26. Reactions were mixed; some critics loved the novel, while others disparaged it as the weakest finalist. Naturally, I had to weigh in. New York Times Book Review who? The arts section of the Kenyon Collegian is obviously the most important source for literary criticism.
Prophet Song is a dystopian novel set in a version of present-day Ireland that is slowly descending into totalitarianism. The protagonist is Eilish Stack, a mother attempting to hold her family together after her husband, Larry, is arrested for being a labor union organizer. As the world crumbles around her, she remains steadfast in her fight to protect her children and win Larry’s freedom. Her story is not a fun one to read; it is dark and violent and upsetting, but it also feels incredibly relevant to the current climate of global politics.
The novel’s greatest strengths are its pacing and world-building. Unlike most dystopias, which begin when circumstances are already awful, the world at the beginning of Prophet Song is virtually identical to our own; there are undertones of political instability, but nothing seems too out of the ordinary. By the end of the novel, however, Ireland has devolved into an unrecognizable, war-torn wasteland. Somehow, Lynch’s writing makes this progression feel entirely natural. There are no drastic changes, but with each page, the reader feels the metaphorical vultures circling a little closer. Prophet Song is one of the most anxiety-inducing books I’ve ever read.
Much of the criticism the novel has received is directed at its unconventional style. There are no paragraph breaks, and the dialogue is not distinguished with quotation marks. (Many Irish authors write in this style, an homage to James Joyce’s modernist classic Ulysses.) I understand why other readers took so much issue with these choices — they can make the story hard to follow at times — but I liked them. They enhanced my sense of dread, the feeling that Eilish was powerless in the face of a constant and unstoppable evil.
My own critiques of Prophet Song primarily concern its ending. After nearly 300 pages of slow burn, the last 50 pages feel rushed by comparison. One of Eilish’s defining character traits is her steadfastness, her refusal to leave her home and country behind. When she at last decides to flee, the plot suddenly starts moving at breakneck speed. I would have liked to spend more time with Eilish as a refugee, to see how she grows and changes in response to her new circumstances. Prophet Song is 320 pages long, and I wish it were 400.Although it is not a perfect novel by any means, Prophet Song is gripping, poignant and powerful. It is also, unfortunately, very prescient. Lynch does an incredible job of depicting how an ordinary government can descend into totalitarianism. If you have even a passing interest in politics, I strongly recommend this book. (I also strongly recommend that you follow me on Goodreads. My reviews are pretty funny sometimes.)