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Irish writer Paul Lynch wins Booker Prize for dystopian novel 'Prophet Song'

Paul Lynch, winner of the 2023 Booker Prize, celebrates shortly after the announcement in London on Sunday.
Alberto Pezzali
Paul Lynch, winner of the 2023 Booker Prize, celebrates shortly after the announcement in London on Sunday.

LONDON — Irish writer Paul Lynch won the Booker Prize for fiction on Sunday with what judges called a "soul-shattering" novel about a woman's struggle to protect her family as Ireland collapses into totalitarianism and war.

Prophet Song, set in a dystopian fictional version of Dublin, was awarded the 50,000-pound ($63,000) literary prize at a ceremony in London. Canadian writer Esi Edugyan, who chaired the judging panel, said the book is "a triumph of emotional storytelling, bracing and brave" in which Lynch "pulls off feats of language that are stunning to witness."

Lynch, 46, had been the bookies' favorite to win the prestigious prize, which usually brings a big boost in sales. His book beat five other finalists from Ireland, the U.K., the U.S. and Canada, chosen from 163 novels submitted by publishers.

"This was not an easy book to write," Lynch said after being handed the Booker trophy. "The rational part of me believed I was dooming my career by writing this novel, though I had to write the book anyway. We do not have a choice in such matters."

Lynch has called Prophet Song, his fifth novel, an attempt at "radical empathy" that tries to plunge readers into the experience of living in a collapsing society.

"I was trying to see into the modern chaos," he told the Booker website. "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 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."

The five prize judges met to pick the winner on Saturday, less than 48 hours after far-right violence erupted in Dublin following a stabbing attack on a group of children. Edugyan said that immediate events didn't directly influence the choice of winner.

Lynch said he was "astonished" by the riots "and at the same time I recognized the truth that this kind of energy is always there under the surface."

He said Prophet Song — written over four years starting in 2018 — "is a counterfactual novel. It's not a prophetic statement."

"I wrote the book to articulate the message that the things that are happening in this book are occurring timelessly throughout the ages and maybe we need to deepen our own responses to that," he told reporters.

The other finalists were Irish writer Paul Murray's The Bee Sting; American novelist Paul Harding's This Other Eden; Canadian author Sarah Bernstein's Study for Obedience; U.S. writer Jonathan Escoffery's If I Survive You; and British author Chetna Maroo's Western Lane.

Edugyan said the choice of winner wasn't unanimous, but the six-hour judges' meeting wasn't acrimonious.

"We all ultimately felt that this was the book that we wanted to present to the world and that this was truly a masterful work of fiction," she said.

Founded in 1969, the Booker Prize is open to English-language novels from any country published in the U.K. and Ireland and has a reputation for transforming writers' careers. Previous winners include Ian McEwan, Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie and Hilary Mantel.

Four Irish novelists and one from Northern Ireland have previously won the prize.

"It is with immense pleasure that I bring the Booker home to Ireland," Lynch said. Asked what he planned to do with the prize money, he said it would help him make payments on his tracker mortgage, which have soared along with inflation.

Lynch received his trophy from last year's winner, Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka, during a ceremony at Old Billingsgate, a grand former Victorian fish market in central London.

The evening included a speech from Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian woman who was jailed in Tehran for almost six years until 2022 on allegations of plotting the overthrow of Iran's government — a charge that she, her supporters and rights groups denied.

She talked about the books that sustained her in prison, recalling how inmates ran an underground library and circulated copies of Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, set in an oppressive American theocracy.

"Books helped me to take refuge into the world of others when I was incapable of making one of my own," Zaghari-Ratcliffe said. "They salvaged me by being one of the very few tools I had, together with imagination, to escape the Evin (prison) walls without physically moving."

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The Associated Press
[Copyright 2024 NPR]