I was delighted when a proof of Paul Lynch’s Booker-longlisted Prophet Song dropped through my letter box. I’d been so impressed by his novella, Beyond the Sea, that I’d included it on my 2019 books of the year list. Set in a near future Ireland in the grips of an increasingly authoritarian regime, his new novel follows scientist Eilish Stack whose husband never returns from his appointment with the security services.
All your life you’ve been asleep, all of us sleeping and now the great awakening begins.
Larry is deputy leader of the teachers’ trade union, about to stage a protest march. When late one night the Garda National Services Bureau knock on the door of the family home it is Eilish who is more unsettled than Larry, urging him to comply with their request to attend an appointment from which he never returns. Eilish is left to look after their four children, the youngest an infant, the oldest about to turn seventeen. She’s concerned about her father who lives across town whose dementia is in decline. Eilish finds herself sidelined at work, struggling to cope with her father’s needs and her children’s defiance and anger at their father’s disappearance. Her sister, long since emigrated to Canada, urges her to take the children and get out but Eilish continues to hope that Larry will return. Each new infringement of liberty is met with disbelief followed by a resigned acceptance. As the regime becomes increasingly draconian, civil society begins to break down, armed insurrection following in its wake. Meanwhile the world looks on.
The street in early light, the checkpoint empty but for a youth who stands alone at the junction and looks as though he is awaiting command to place this weapon down and go to school, a Toyota Land Cruiser slowing past.
Lynch’s novel is one of the darkest I’ve read for quite some time. Told from Eilish’s perspective, there are no paragraphs, no speech marks, to break up this grim narrative yet I felt compelled to continue reading it. It’s relentless and exhausting which is just as is should be, the tiniest of glimmers of how it might feel to be in such a situation. Eilish often wakes from vivid nightmares into an even more nightmarish reality. Her father has moments of chilling lucidity about what is happening to his country. Her plight and that of her family is all too believable, uncomfortably familiar from the news with its reports of conflict zones, political oppression and tragic stories of refugees drowning. Ukraine is the current horror almost on our doorstep, but it was Syria and its tyrannical regime that came to mind. Eilish and her family are people like you and me, dear reader. I can sit and read Lynch’s extraordinarily powerful novel in my comfortable home without fear of a knock on the door but it does no harm to be reminded that democracy is a fragile and precious thing.
Oneworld Publications: London 9780861546459 320 pages Hardback