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In Booker-winning 'Prophet Song,' the world ends slowly and then all at once

Atlantic Monthly Press

Toward the end of Prophet Song, the harrowing novel that won this year's Booker Prize, Paul Lynch unspools a sentence that gathers momentum for more than a page before it seizes on a truth: "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, an echo of events that has passed into folklore."

In Prophet Song, the world ends slowly and then all at once in Ireland. Two years after coming into power, the authoritarian National Alliance Party has passed the Emergency Powers Act "in response to the ongoing crisis facing the state," giving seemingly boundless powers to the Garda National Services Bureau, a new secret police force. To the GNSB, people who exercise constitutional rights that were previously foundational to liberal democracy — the right to protest, for one — are seditious. But Lynch's focus is not on the NAP's rise to power or the inner workings of the authoritarian state. Instead, he zeroes in on one family's experience of the end of the world knocking on their door.

At first Eilish Stack doesn't hear — or doesn't want to hear — "the sharp, insistent rapping" that rains down upon the door of her Dublin home on the novel's first page. She's standing in her kitchen at the end of a long day of working at the biotech firm where she is a senior manager and also wrangling her four children, who range in age from mere months old to 16. Her husband, Larry, the deputy general secretary of the Teachers' Union of Ireland, is not yet home. When she answers the door, it is Larry who the two GNSB plainclothesman want to speak to, whose presence they request at the garda station late on a dark and rainy night. By the end of Prophet Song's first chapter, Larry has been disappeared by the GNSB along with other trade unionists and teachers for engaging in a peaceful union march, and Eilish's waking nightmare has commenced.

With his winding, dread-filled sentences and without paragraph breaks, Lynch plunges readers into this nightmare and scarcely provides any space to breathe. The Booker Prize 2023 judges lauded Prophet Song because it is "propulsive and unsparing, and it flinches away from nothing." I found the novel not so much propulsive as compulsive, carried forward by an uncontrollable force. Lynch's style mimics the unfolding of Eilish's confrontation with her country's inexorable drift into totalitarian rule and civil war, and with what she must do to keep her family together. She alternates between panic and denial, between keeping her head down and stubbornly refusing to abide the regime's logic. No matter Eilish's choices, the horror continues without relief.

At times, the novel's relentless bleakness made it almost unbearable to read. And yet its plausibility kept me from looking away. There are passages in Prophet Song that echo with 2020's brutal police crackdowns on Black Lives Matter marches and former president Donald Trump's increasingly autocratic and apocalyptic language. Some of the ghastliest scenes feel pulled from current reports of Israel's relentless bombardment of the Gaza Strip, from Russia's assault on Ukrainian sovereignty. None of these events had yet occurred when Lynch began writing Prophet Song four years ago. He has said that he was then thinking of "the unrest in Western democracies [and] the problem of Syria — the implosion of an entire nation, the scale of its refugee crisis and the West's indifference."

And yet, Lynch maintains that the novel is not so much political as "metaphysical," and that rather than be guided by grievance, he felt that "the work of serious fiction must instead be grief: grief for the things we cannot control, grief for what cannot be understood, grief for what lies beyond us." By sinking deeply and claustrophobically into Eilish's perspective, and by focusing her reckoning on what has become of her family and her life, rather than what has become of her state, Lynch succeeds at this work.

Much of Prophet Song deals with the domestic and mundane aspects of Eilish's life — keeping the fridge stocked with milk, ferrying the older children to school, soothing the baby's gums as he teethes — even as the regime sets curfews, as thugs vandalize her car, as airstrikes hit her neighborhood. At one point, she deep-cleans the kitchen despite "an explosion close by shaking the ground so that she must hold onto the sink with two hands," a scene that recalls the apocryphal band playing as the Titanic sank. Though her sister in Toronto admonishes Eilish that "history is a silent record of people who did not know when to leave," knowing when to leave is not so simple — leaving is not so simple.

Throughout Prophet Song, Eilish, a scientist dedicated to empirical fact and observable reality transported to a world where "the truth of anything cannot be known," learns again and again that there is so little we can control and understand in the face of societal collapse. The lesson for readers is not necessarily to wake up to signs of totalitarianism knocking at our doors, but to empathize with those for whom it has already called.

Kristen Martin is working on a book on American orphanhood for Bold Type Books. Her writing has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Believer, The Baffler, and elsewhere. She tweets at @kwistent.

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Kristen Martin