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The Irish author Paul Lynch has won the 2023 Booker Prize for fiction for his novel Prophet Song, a dystopian portrait of the everyday realities of a country which has descended into authoritarian tyranny and civil conflict.
Set in an Ireland of the near future where the elected National Alliance has declared a state of emergency, the novel follows Eilish Stack, a scientist, mother and wife of a trade unionist arrested by the secret police, as she navigates her family through a societal breakdown and mounting violence.
“From that first knock at the door, Prophet Song forces us out of our complacency as we follow the terrifying plight of a woman seeking to protect her family in an Ireland descending into totalitarianism,” said Esi Edugyan, the novelist and chair of this year’s judging panel.
The judges reached their decision after a six-hour meeting on Saturday, just days after Dublin was gripped by rioting following a knife attack at a school. Edugyan said that although the judges were obviously aware of those events, “I really have to stress that it was not [the] reason Prophet Song won the prize”.
She said the judges were “haunted” by the “sustained claustrophobia” of the world imagined by Lynch. “He flinches from nothing, depicting the reality of state violence and displacement and offering no easy consolations. Here the sentence is stretched to its limits — Lynch pulls off feats of language that are stunning to witness.”
While set in Dublin, the novel draws on global themes. “I was trying to see into the modern chaos. The unrest in western democracies,” Lynch told the Booker Prize website, adding he was particularly affected by the Syrian civil war — “the implosion of an entire nation” — and western indifference to the resulting refugee crisis.
“Prophet Song is partly an attempt at radical empathy. To understand better, we must first experience the problem for ourselves,” Lynch said.
The Financial Times review noted how Lynch’s use of blocks of prose without speech marks or paragraph breaks added to the novel’s “sense of narrative urgency” to create an “utterly believable” authoritarian nightmare.
Lynch, born in Limerick in 1977 and the author of four previous novels, was one of four Irish writers longlisted for this year’s £50,000 prize, an achievement seen by some critics as confirmation of the notable strength of fiction-writing in Ireland today. Lynch credited financial support from the Irish state for making this possible, noting he received two grants during the four years it took to write Prophet Song.
At the prize ceremony on Sunday evening, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the UK-Iranian dual national who spent six years in jail in Iran on espionage charges she always denied, gave the keynote address in which she described how books helped her cope with solitary confinement.
“When the guard opened the door and handed over the books to me, I felt liberated; I could read books, they could take me to another world, and that, could transform my life,” she said. Among the works she read were The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, The Return by Hisham Matar and Tolstoy’s War and Peace.