Fiction review: ‘Prophet Song’

Ian Hunter, Nottingham and Derby Socialist Party

The annual Booker Prize for fiction is often rightly regarded as a publishers’ marketing and promotional jamboree. It is, however, sometimes awarded to some remarkable works of fiction. I think this year’s winner, ‘Prophet Song’ by Paul Lynch is one such work.

The novel, based in the Irish Republic, possibly sometime in the near future, describes the collapse of a society under a far-right government led by a new party called the National Alliance Party (NAP). The recently elected government has passed an Emergency Powers Act and is determined to crush all dissent and opposition. To this end, it has established a new and powerful secret police unit, now armed with extensive powers to achieve its aims. A nightmarish degeneration into societal collapse ensues as government officials and the administration quickly fall into line, and citizens who raise questions are regarded as ‘incitors’, ‘agitators’, or ‘enemies of state’.

Central to the novel is the Stack family. Eilish is a research scientist and mother of four (ranging in age from a few months to seventeen), and Larry, a former teacher who now works as a full-time organiser for the teachers’ union.

At the beginning of the story, two officers of the new police unit call at the family’s home one evening to talk to Larry who has organised a teachers’ union demonstration. The pressure is on him to call off the action, but after much soul-searching he decides to continue. He attends the demonstration but fails to return afterwards and, along with others, is taken into custody under the new emergency powers.

From then onwards, the situation descends further into a dehumanisation – a brutal state of confusion and chaos with further detentions, curfews and repressive state actions. Eventually rumours of resistance and a fightback throughout the country are confirmed. Despite some rebel success, the situation and outlook remains bleak and oppressive as a struggle slowly and stutteringly evolves.

Eilish has the unenviable task of trying to navigate ways through all of this. She has to deal with the effects on both herself, her children, and her father‘s struggles with Alzheimer’s disease. As all around her collapses into ever-deeper chaos and social anarchy, Eilish faces a constant range of agonising choices, most of which give little cause for hope and possibility.

The author has stated that the book took three years to write, and was a difficult and daunting task. Indeed, there are parts that are not a comforting read.

The parallels with many current  issues facing many people and societies today are obvious: legislation restricting protest and debate, curbs on trade union activities, crises of liberal democracies and capitalism, economic and social meltdown, far-right populism, and breakdowns in civic society.

This is a timely and important work, which should, and will, cause many to reflect on the key themes and harrowing events.

  • Prophet World is available to buy from