Thursday, September 28, 2023

Prophet Song, by Paul Lynch


Oneworld, 2023
308 pp


As with more than a few books I've read recently, Prophet Song drew my attention by way of this year's Booker Prize longlist, from which it has now moved on to the shortlist.  This book was such a powerful read that it made me cry at the end, and that does not happen every day.  

With no back story to explain how it happened (and really, in my opinion, one is not needed -- the reader must accept that this is how things are for this story),  a group known as the National Alliance Party has come to power in Ireland, and under the pretext of combatting the "ongoing crisis facing the state," it has issued the Emergency Powers Act.  About a week later, the Party replaced the regular Secret Detective Unit  (which, according to a bit of research on my end has the mission to investigate "threats to State security" and to "monitor persons who pose a threat to this on both national and international fronts")  with the Garda National Services Board (GNSB), who are in control of the "maintenance of public order."  One person here refers to them as a sort of "secret police," which he notes, does not exist in Ireland, but given everything that is to come, is very likely a more realistic description.   As this story begins, it is two GNSB detectives to whom Eilish Stack opens her kitchen patio door one dark night, asking for her husband Larry, who is not home at the time.  They ask her to have him call when he returns, telling her that "it is nothing to worry about."   Eilish has no idea what this is all about, but she does have a feeling that "darkness has come into the house," something that she sees "skulking alongside her as she steps through the living room past the children." 

Larry, a teacher who is also the deputy general secretary of the Teachers' Union of Ireland, a "senior trade unionist," makes his way to the station, where he is told that in the eyes of the GNSB, his behavior seems to them to be the "conduct of someone inciting hatred against the state, someone sowing discord and unrest."  Evidently the party is not happy about an upcoming teachers' strike, and Larry, as it turns out, is working with Ireland's teachers "to negotiate for better conditions." Reminding the GNSB detectives that he has every legal right to do so, he leaves, but it's with an understanding that the familiar ground upon which he has been walking has most certainly shifted.  Soon the Stacks begin to hear of friends  being arrested, of constitutional rights being suspended and there are rumors of civil unrest and internment camps.  Eilish believes her phone is tapped and later, Larry is suddenly disappeared and no one knows anything about his whereabouts.   Eilish is warned to stay quiet, but refuses to do so,  drawing  the wrath of the government;  little by little she finds herself becoming more isolated, especially at her work.  With Larry gone, Eilish is left in sole charge of the family; she is also taking care of her widowed father, who lives alone and is sliding into dementia.  It takes all she has sometimes just to keep herself together so that she can be strong for her four children as their normal lives crumble.  She will soon discover that Larry's disappearance is only the beginning of her nightmare;  as the government works to consolidate its hold on the people through whatever means necessary,  she and her four children find themselves caught up in horrific events as they become part of a "society that is quickly unravelling."   Yet, it is not only society which is "unravelling" here -- the most powerful moments of this novel focus on Eilish as the situation takes an immense and unspeakable toll on each member of her family, leaving her to make some extremely painful choices in order to protect them and above all, to ensure their survival.  

About plot I will say no more, and the above description doesn't begin to cover all of the twists and turns that make the reading of this novel such a powerful experience.  While what happens here is set amid a "government turning toward tyranny," to think of Prophet Song as simply another work of  "dystopian fiction" does not do this novel justice.  That turn toward tyranny has happened, and more to the point is happening somewhere at sometime in our world, a reality with which we are all familiar, as well as a point strongly highlighted when the author writes
"... the prophet sings not of  the end of the world but of what has been done and what will be done and what is being done to some but not not others, that the world is always ending over and over again in one place but not another and that the end of the world is always a local event, it comes to your country and visits your town and knocks on the door of your house and becomes to others but some distant warning, a brief report of on the news, an echo of events that has passed into folklore ..."

 Throughout the novel,  the author uses the present tense to not only communicate the ongoing changes that occur in the process, but also the very nowness of the situation, which is one factor in making this book so harrowing, and his examination of the lack of freedom of agency, as he notes here "when caught within such an enormity of forces" is another.   And while I will not divulge the ending, which actually flips the story back on the reader,  by the time I got there I was absolutely in tears, thinking not just of Eilish but of real-world mothers who have experienced some of the same terrors and who have somehow summoned the courage it must have taken to make the same kind of unbearable decisions, and quite frankly, who have come to a point at which they feel they must gamble everything  to protect their families under some of the same conditions.  

I loved this book and cannot say enough good things about it; this story will haunt me for some time and it is one I most definitely recommend.  

Sunday, September 10, 2023

A Study for Obedience, by Sarah Bernstein


Knopf Canada
193 pp


I meant to get this post done much sooner, but sadly another death has darkened our doorway so it's been a few rough weeks around here for the two of us.  But it's time to move forward.

The narrative in Study for Obedience is related by an unnamed narrator (whom we find out later is Jewish, which has more than a small amount of bearing on her story), who, as she reveals, was the youngest child in her family, and that since childhood, her role had been to provide her siblings 
"with the greatest possible succour, filling them up only so they could demand more, always more, demands to which I acceded with alacrity and discreet haste..." 
In other words, her life had been one of putting the needs of others ahead of her own, the consequences of which were her slide into a life of self denial and solitude, "pursuing silence to its ever-receding horizon."   She has no sense of belonging, and her "pursuit" of offering "the most careful consideration to the other, to treat the other as the worthiest object of contemplation" has left her "reduced, diminished..." and in her words, ceasing to exist.   It is not surprising then that when her brother calls her to come to his home because he needs someone to look after his house while he is away for long periods on business, that she accepts his request. His wife has left him, along with their children, and so for our narrator, it is a chance to live in seclusion and to "be quiet."  His house is in a "remote northern country" which happens to be where her "family's ancestors" had lived before being "dogged across borders and put into pits," and indeed was once owned by those who had led the "historic crusades" against them.  It is with her arrival that the story begins in earnest, especially once she decides to venture out into the town and discovers that the people, who seem to have no issues with her brother, want nothing at all to do with her. Perhaps, she thinks,  it is because she can't speak the local dialect. Anyway, for whatever reason, she decides to volunteer for community service by putting her name on a rota sheet of chores the locals share. Despite her misgivings afterwards about doing that, her brother sorts things out for her long distance, on condition that she does her work quietly and alone.  Not at all a problem for our narrator, but troubles begin just shortly after, when strange events alluded to at the beginning of this book start to happen, including a dog having a "phantom pregnancy," a sow who had "eradicated her piglets," and things that "were leaving one place and showing up in another." 

Just when I was convinced that we're venturing into a sort of folk horror zone here, the brother returns home not quite himself and there is a major shift that occurs which moves  Study for Obedience into different territory altogether, one which gets to the very heart of this book.  While I won't discuss what that shift is or exactly or how it comes about, suffice it to say that the novel deals with the acquisition, uses and misuses of power;  the complicity of silence and the weight of history, both personal and otherwise, are also key ideas that run throughout this novel.  And while not the horror story I thought it was going to be, this is still quite a disturbing tale that I couldn't stop thinking about for days after I'd finished reading it. 

It wasn't until the second time through that the proverbial light went on in my head.  While  Study for Obedience is short, coming in at just about 200 pages, it is most certainly not your average plot-driven novel requiring more time on my part to get through it.  Toward the end it becomes much more philosophical in nature than I had expected, making the reading a bit on the difficult side, and I'll be honest here -- it became a bit cumbersome languagewise for a while.    However, the patient reader is definitely rewarded and quite frankly, once I cottoned onto what was going on here, I was completely in awe at this author's talent, making it a book I can certainly recommend.