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Courageous, deeply disturbing, and chillingly representative of contemporary times, Paul Lynch’s Dystopia makes for a tumultuous read. Prophet Song with shades of 1984 and The Road punctuating its pages, is set in the modern Republic of Ireland, which unfortunately finds itself in the malevolent grip of a totalitarian regime. The repressive establishment is the result of the National Alliance Party (NAP) taking control of the nation and putting paid to civil liberties and constitutional rights of its citizens. Emergency legislations are passed bestowing untrammeled powers to the Garda Síochána and to an outfit called the Garda National Services Bureau (GNSB) – basically the Irish answer to the Statsi.
The protagonist in Lynch’s story is Eilish Stack, a microbiologist, a mother of four and wife to Larry Stack, the deputy secretary general in the Teacher’s Union of Ireland. On a bleak and wintry night, two GNSB personnel manifest themselves at the doorstep of Eilish’s house looking for Larry. Within a few days following a teacher’s march, Larry disappears into thin air, vanishing without a trace.
The whole might of the GNSB and the NAP is felt by Eilish in incremental doses of agony. While futilely petitioning the government for the release of her husband, Eilish is also required to tend to her aging father who requires constant care due to a combination of a degenerating memory and an obstinacy to live all by himself. Despite his deteriorating mental condition, Eilish’s father wisely counsels her to depart the country with her children in tow to the safer confines of Canada where Eilish’s sister Áine is a citizen. Eilish however pays scant regard to such advise still hopeful of her husband’s return.
Things come to a heated stand when a rebel insurrection movement takes root and Ireland is racked by an internal civil war. Military aircrafts scream across the sky depositing remorseless missiles at rebel strongholds while a constant state of surveillance identifies rebel supporters before whisking the unfortunates away, first to unknown centres of detention, and ultimately the morgue. Mark, the seventeen-year-old first son of Eilish soon enlists himself in the rebel cause, much to the chagrin of Eilish and goes incommunicado.
Áine keeps imploring Eilish to join her in Canada. “History is a silent record of people who did not know when to leave,” Áine reminds her stubborn sibling. Even as rations run out and the electricity is completely disrupted, Eilish resolutely sticks to her guns and stays put in a positively dangerous and frightening atmosphere.
Lynch’s Eilish is one of those millions of helpless, harried, and hapless individuals whose predicament is broadcast to us through the lens of a vulturine media which for the sole and dastardly purpose of embellishing its TRP ratings is more than delighted to desensitize the feelings of the oppressed. From the fortunate comforts of our living rooms, we are provided a sneak peek at nauseatingly regular intervals of myriad atrocities being committed in various corners of the globe. Ceausescu, Pol Pot, Rafael Videla etc have all resorted to unspeakable horrors in systematically ripping out the heart of the social fabric in their respective nations.
The fact that Prophet Song does not contain any paragraph breaks means that sentences that are virtually jeremiads sometimes run the entire length of a page. There is a conscious and deliberate absence of speech marks for dialogues and speakers are not provided a new line. Such fragmentation makes the narrative even more eerie and elegiac.
Eilish battles both external circumstances and internal demons as she engages in a fierce and unforgiven fight to protect her family. Her undying love for her children is forced to undergo involuntary stress tests as her own offspring question her decisions and thoughts. The reader is at times driven to the edge of exasperation as she almost flings the book at the closest wall yelling “can’t you see Eilish that it is in the best interests of the family to pay heed to what your own father and Áine are imploring you to do?” But then again if she was to be so compliant, she wouldn’t be Eilish, and the world wouldn’t have its Prophet’s Song.
At the time of this review Prophet Song has slid itself into the shortlist for the Booker Prize 2023. It took Lynch four long years to write it. In his own words, “Four long years it took 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.”
I wouldn’t be one bit surprised if the Lynch was to progress from being a shortlisted author to the fifth Irish writer to have won the Booker, on the 26th of November 2023. Best wishes to him and the book!
Prophet Song is published by Grove Atlantic and would be available for purchase beginning 12 December 2023.
Thank You Net Galley for the Advance Reviewer Copy!