Everything you need to know about the Booker Prize 2023 shortlist
As the Booker Prize 2023 shortlist is announced, we’ve pulled together the most interesting facts and trends that have emerged in this year’s selection
In Paul Lynch’s Booker Prize 2023-winning novel, a mother faces a terrible choice as personal freedoms are eroded and society heads towards collapse
Whether you’re new to the book or have read it and would like to explore it more deeply, here is our comprehensive guide, featuring insights from critics, our judges and the book’s author, as well as discussion points and suggestions for further reading.
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.
Eilish is the novel’s protagonist. A microbiologist and mother of four, Eilish is left to care for her children on her own after her husband Larry ‘disappears’ after attending a protest. Fiercely protective of her family, as society all but collapses around her, Eilish must decide what she is willing to leave behind to ensure they all survive.
Mark is Eilish’s eldest son, caught between child and adulthood. Eilish desperately wishes to smuggle him over the border to safety, but Mark decides to leave home to join rebel forces instead of enduring the mandatory conscription of the police state.
Áine is Eilish’s sister who lives in Toronto. She is deeply concerned for the family and her distance allows her a unique perspective to observe the unravelling of Irish society. Áine sends traffickers to Eilish’s house in Dublin, in a desperate attempt to persuade her and the family to leave and come to Canada instead.
Paul Lynch is an internationally acclaimed Irish novelist who has published five novels, winning several awards in the process.
Before Prophet Song, which is shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2023, Lynch wrote four novels: 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.
‘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. Propulsive and unsparing, it flinches away from nothing. This is an utterly brave performance by an author at the peak of his powers, and it is terribly moving.’
Aimée Walsh, The Guardian
‘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. It begins in Dublin as Larry, a senior trade unionist, is disappeared at a rally, leaving his wife, Eilish, to raise their four children. She must make impossible decisions to protect her family. In one heart-wrenching scene, she has to run across no man’s land to see her injured son at a hospital, risking execution by snipers shooting at civilians.’
Max Liu, The iNews
‘There are strong meditations on what home means in a world in perpetual crisis and how we disassociate ourselves from other people’s catastrophes: “The end of the world is always a local event, it comes to your country and visits your town and knocks on the door of your house and becomes to others but some distant warning, a brief report on the news…”
‘Lynch shuns a happy ending, leaving the reader with hope but resisting the bromide that nasty governments are an aberration and politics will soon go back to normal. That’s brave but over all this is an odd novel, a half-successful fusion of the dystopian and poetic, carrying a prophecy that sounds familiar.’
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.
‘It comes garlanded with praise from Lynch’s contemporaries including Donal Ryan, Colum McCann, Colm Toíbín, Sara Baume, Rob Doyle, Christine Dwyer Hickey, and Lisa Harding, all richly deserved. 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.’
Eoghan Smith, Literary Review
‘The opening chapters of this gripping, brilliantly realised story of political violence follow Eilish’s attempts to find her husband, Larry, a member of a teachers’ trade union, who is abducted after a protest march. As Eilish comes into conflict with the forces of officialdom, she becomes an enemy of the state: her property is attacked and she is isolated at work. Alone, she is left to shield her dementia-suffering father and children from the growing menace. Her eldest child, Mark, is sent away before he can be called up for national service, while fourteen-year-old Molly develops an eating disorder. Bailey, almost thirteen, becomes ever more disobedient. Eilish’s struggle, described in an urgent present-tense narration, is set against a growing insurgency that plunges Ireland into a civil war that drags her family in, culminating in intense fighting in Dublin between government and rebel forces.
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
‘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. The invasion of Ukraine had not even begun. I couldn’t write directly about Syria so I brought the problem to Ireland as a simulation. The book began with a problem that Larry Stack is faced with: how do you prove that a democratic act is not an act against the state? The novel grew in complexity and developed its own implacable logic. It began to speak to multiple political realities all at once. There’s a line from Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing that I sought to use as an epigraph that speaks to my intention, but Cormac was unwell and we couldn’t get permission in time for publication: “The task of the narrator is not an easy one … He appears to be required to choose his tale from among the many that are possible. But of course that is not the case. The case is rather to make many of the one.”’
Read Paul Lynch’s full interview here.
Prophet Song begins with two epigraphs: one from the Bible, a quote from Ecclesiastes 1:9; followed by one from Bertolt Brecht, the German playwright and poet. What is their significance, and why has Paul Lynch chosen these to open the novel?
Prophet Song is written with an unusual structure. The sentences are long and the author eschews the use of paragraphs. Why do you think he has chosen to write the story in this manner? Is it successful in creating atmosphere around the reading experience?
The story is told from Eilish’s perspective and stays close to her throughout, yet there are no dialogue markers in the text, with Lynch choosing to avoid use of quotation marks. ‘He looks up and shakes his head and says, maybe you’re right, Eilish, this is not the time, it is madness to go ahead, I’ll give them a call, tell them I’m out sick.’ (Page 28). How does this style of prose serve the story? Does it allow you to see the story through Eilish’s eyes?
Prophet Song is set in a dystopian Ireland which is slowly sinking into authoritarian rule. What places and events may have served as inspiration for the novel? And why do you think the author chose to root the novel in a Western country with a democratically elected government, rather than somewhere more volatile? Is Ireland a believable location for the events described in the book?
The Booker judges said the novel captures ‘the social and political anxieties of our moment’. To what extent do you think the novel is prescient, and do you think it is intended to be read as a cautionary tale?
‘You need to relax, the GNSB are not the Stasi, they are just applying a little pressure, that is all,’ Larry tells Eilish at an early point in the story (page 28). Where does the irony lie in this statement with references to the Stasi, the secret police force of East Germany? And to what extent do you think the characters cling to the belief that a country as civilised as theirs could never descend into such a terrifying situation?
‘The south of this city will be put to siege and the military will turn this place into hell, they will pound the rebels into submission, you’ll becut off from the world, from supplies, none of what I tell you is a secret, you have children to think of, you have an elderly father who is in need of medical Care.’ (Page 212). Elish is a woman dedicated to, and immensely protective of her family and children. What battles is she facing, and what may be prohibiting her from leaving Dublin, despite being told by multiple sources she should now leave the city?
‘History is a silent record of people who did not know when to leave.’ (Page 103). Áine, Elish’s sister tells her this while trying to get her to journey to Canada with the children. What historical events might she be referring to, and why does she deem it a ‘silent’ record?
Much of the novel offers a commentary on our cultural desensitisation to real-world events, including war, due to over-saturation by the media. What purpose does the media serve in the novel, and do you agree this may be the case?
In an interview with the Booker Prizes website, Paul Lynch said ‘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. […] I was aware while writing this book that I was addressing, in part, a modern problem: why are we in the West so short on empathy for the refugees flooding towards our borders? Prophet Song is partly an attempt at radical empathy. To understand better, we must first experience the problem for ourselves.’ Discuss the impact of the novel on you in relation to this quote from Lynch - did it make you feel differently about the plight of refugees elsewhere in the world?