Prophet Song cover and an author portrait of Paul Lynch

2023 Booker Prize Goes to an Irish Dystopia

Posted by Speakeasy News > Wednesday 06 December 2023 > What's On

The Booker Prize 2023 was awarded to Paul Lynch for his dystopian novel set in his native Ireland, Prophet Song. 

Chosen from a longlist of 13 and a shortlist of six, Lynch's is the fifth Irish novel to win the U.K.'s most prestigious literary prize. And it's the former film critic's fifth novel.

Prophet Song is set in a dystopian not-so-far in the future version of Ireland which he says was inspired by the sight of Syria descending into chaos. In a context where a tyrannical government constantly changes the rules, scientist and mother-of-four Eilish Stack has to try to keep her family together when her husband, the deputy general secretary of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland, is detained for simply doing his job.

"Radical empathy"
The Booker judges said the novel captures, "the social and political anxieties of our moment." All the more so since the prize announcement was made just after a weekend of riots in Dublin.

Lynch himself puts it down to empathy: "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. And 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."

The idea of the novel came to him after six months of trying and failing to write a different one. Then, one fateful Monday, "I closed my eyes and the opening page of Prophet Song arrived pretty much as you read it now. Those sentences came out of the blind and I can honestly say it is one of the miracles of my writing life."

The night has come and she has not heard the knocking, standing at the window looking out onto the garden. How the dark gathers without sound the cherry trees. It gathers the last of the leaves and the leaves do not resist the dark but accept the dark in whisper. Tired now, the day almost behind her, all that still has to be done before bed and the children settled in the living room, this feeling of rest for a moment by the glass. Watching the darkening garden and the wish to be at one with this darkness, to step outside and lie down with it, to lie with the fallen leaves and let the night pass over, to wake then with the dawn and rise renewed with the morning come. But the knocking. She hears it pass into thought, the sharp, insistent rapping, each knock possessed so fully of the knocker she begins to frown.

You can read the full opening extract from Prophet Song and see a different dramatised extract read by Outlander actress Catriona Balfe the Booker Prize site.

And read our article about the six shortlisted books.