As Paul Lynch becomes the fifth Irish writer to win the Booker Prize, here’s the lowdown on his winning novel, Prophet Song

Publication date and time: Published

Why did Prophet Song win the Booker Prize?

Esi Edugyan, Chair of the judges, said: 

‘From that first knock at the door, Prophet Song forces us out of our complacency as we follow the terrifying plight of a woman seeking to protect her family in an Ireland descending into totalitarianism. We felt unsettled from the start, submerged in – and haunted by – the sustained claustrophobia of Lynch’s powerfully constructed world. He flinches from nothing, depicting the reality of state violence and displacement and offering no easy consolations. Here the sentence is stretched to its limits – Lynch pulls off feats of language that are stunning to witness. He has the heart of a poet, using repetition and recurring motifs to create a visceral reading experience. This is a triumph of emotional storytelling, bracing and brave. With great vividness, Prophet Song captures the social and political anxieties of our current moment. Readers will find it soul-shattering and true, and will not soon forget its warnings.’ 

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What is Prophet Song about?

Prophet Song is an exhilarating, propulsive and confrontational portrait of a country – and an ordinary family – on the brink of catastrophe. 

On a dark, wet evening in Dublin, scientist and mother-of-four Eilish Stack answers her front door to find the GNSB on her doorstep. Two officers from Ireland’s newly formed secret police want to speak with her husband…  

Things are falling apart. Ireland is in the grip of a government that is taking a turn towards tyranny. And as the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, Eilish finds herself caught within the nightmare logic of a collapsing society – assailed by unpredictable forces beyond her control and forced to do whatever it takes to keep her family together.  

Who is Paul Lynch?

​Paul Lynch was born in Limerick in 1977, grew up in Co Donegal, and lives in Dublin. He was previously the chief film critic of Ireland’s Sunday Tribune newspaper from 2007 to 2011 and wrote regularly for the Sunday Times on cinema.  

He is an internationally acclaimed Irish novelist who has published five novels, winning several awards in the process. Before Prophet Song, Lynch wrote Beyond the Sea, Grace, The Black Snow and Red Sky in Morning. His third novel, Grace, won the 2018 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year and the 2020 Ireland Francophonie Ambassadors’ Literary Award. His second novel, The Black Snow, won France’s bookseller prize, Prix Libr’à Nous for Best Foreign Novel.  

Booker Prize 2023-winning author Paul Lynch discusses his novel Prophet Song at the Southbank Centre, London

What else have the judges said about Prophet Song?

Prophet Song follows one woman’s attempts to save her family in a dystopic Ireland sliding further and further into authoritarian rule. It is a shocking, at times tender novel that is not soon forgotten.  

‘The prose is a feast, with gorgeous rolling sentences you sink into. Far from didactic, the book warns of the precarity of democratic ideals and the ugly possibilities that lie beyond their desecration. 

‘[The book] has one of the most haunting endings you will ever read [and] lives long in the mind after you’ve set it down.’ 

Booker Prize judges 2023

What has Paul Lynch said about the book?

‘I was trying to see into the modern chaos. The unrest in Western democracies. The problem of Syria – the implosion of an entire nation, the scale of its refugee crisis and the West’s indifference. Prophet Song is partly an attempt at radical empathy. To understand better, we must first experience the problem for ourselves. So I sought to deepen the dystopian by bringing to it a high degree of realism. I wanted to deepen the reader’s immersion to such a degree that by the end of the book, they would not just know, but feel this problem for themselves.’  

Read more here.

Paul Lynch, author of Prophet Song

What have the critics said?

Aimee Walsh, Observer:

‘Told without paragraph breaks, the book has a breathless, claustrophobic atmosphere. Free will and the meaning of liberty are pushed beyond their limits, eroding both to a state of near non-existence. […] Lynch’s message is crystal clear: lives the world over are experiencing upheaval, violence, persecution. Prophet Song is a literary manifesto for empathy for those in need and a brilliant, haunting novel that should be placed into the hands of policymakers everywhere.’

Alannah Hopkin, Irish Examiner:

‘I don’t know when I last read a book that left me as shaken and disturbed as Paul Lynch’s fifth novel. It is a tremendous achievement, telling a dark story of a society’s descent into war that resonates far beyond Ireland. This is one of the most important novels of 2023.

‘Paul Lynch is a fearless writer – unafraid of taking on large themes and tackling them face to face. The story recounts a mother’s experience of life in suburban Dublin, as it is transformed by a tyrannical government into a war zone. While it is Irish in detail, its events recall those seen nightly on the news.’

Melissa Harrison, Guardian:

‘The Irish offspring of The Handmaid’s Tale and Nineteen Eighty-Four, Paul Lynch’s Booker-longlisted fifth novel is as nightmarish a story as you’ll come across: powerful, claustrophobic and horribly real. From its opening pages it exerts a grim kind of grip; even when approached cautiously and read in short bursts it somehow lingers, its world leaking out from its pages like black ink into clear water… Where Prophet Song leads us in its closing pages is shocking, yet grimly inevitable. We would do well not to look away.’ 

Prophet Song by Paul Lynch

Which writers have influenced Paul Lynch?

In an article for the Booker Prizes, Lynch wrote:

‘There are many supreme writers whose gaze slides effortlessly into the infinite – Woolf, Kafka, Borges and Lispector chief among them. Though for me, Melville, Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Faulkner, and McCarthy form an echoing conversation across time.  

‘Such writers in their familial resemblances might better be described as cosmic realism. For they are defined by their cosmic eye, their ability to gaze as though from on high at the human condition in all its agony and confusion and grand gestures, to hold within their gaze not just the table and chairs and the chatter in the room but the fundamental strangeness of our condition – the infinite spaces that enfold us, the eternal truths that define us throughout the ages. Theirs is a gaze that reaches into the farthest reaches of reality and into the very stuffing of what we are. The secrets of the world remain profound but the cosmic writer steps forward to be its interpreter.’ 

Paul Lynch on Cosmic Realism

Why does Paul Lynch think Ireland produces so many good writers?

‘None of this would be possible without the support of the Irish state. I received two Arts Council bursaries during the four years it took to write this book.’ In a video interview with the Booker Prizes, Lynch talked about the influence of the great Irish writers of the past: ‘Writers like Beckett or Joyce don’t just produce great works of literature, they transmit into the culture a massive energy and we’re still drawing on that, whether we realise it or not.’

Paul Murray and Paul Lynch, shortlisted authors for the Booker Prize 2023, speaking with Her Majesty the Queen at Clarence House

How long did it take Paul Lynch to write Prophet Song?

Lynch told the Booker Prizes:

‘[It took] four long years to write, through pandemic and normality, through Long Covid and health. My son, Elliot, was born just before I began to write, and by the end, he was riding a bike.  

‘The spewing out of drafts is not for me. I write (mostly) five days a week, a few hundred careful words a day, often researching as I go, in a process whereby I edit as I write. These days, my first drafts come fairly close to the final one.   

‘I had previously spent six months writing the wrong book, and knew it too, but kept hammering through rock in the hope of a breakthrough. Then one Friday, about 3pm, I stopped writing and thought, this is the wrong book – I will return on Monday morning and start a new one. I could sense there was something lurking just out of sight but I didn’t know what it might be.’

Booker Prize 2023 winner Paul Lynch with the Booker trophy, Iris

Is Prophet Song really a dystopian novel?

In a video interview with the Booker Prizes, Lynch said:

‘What I wanted to do with this book was dismantle the form of the dystopian novel. I’ve always been suspicious that the dystopian sometimes can be a little too papier mâché. The speculative that’s going on in this book isn’t speculative at all. It’s actually going on somewhere in the world right now. Such a book cannot be speculative at all. It’s actually realism.’

Booker Prize 2023-winning author Paul Lynch reading from Prophet Song at the Southbank Centre, London