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.  

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