Prophet Song by Paul Lynch

There are elements of this book that I found quite fascinating: the descent into a facist state, the effects of being the wife of a ‘disappeared’ husband, disappeared for doing his job. The unsettling feeling all around. How it starts with one small nibble, and after the rats have nibbled and nibbled, you turn around and almost everything that you held dear has gone including your seventeen year old son who has been ‘called up’ into military service with the removal of personal freedoms. So for this element and the idea that it turns us all into migrants who want to escape and it being so close to home, I think the book is excellent. What was life like for people who arrive on boats? What are they escaping? How desperate they must be.

But there are other elements that I think do not work at all. I couldn’t help but think that the facist state of Ireland was like that of East Germany after the war but the current situation suggests it will look different to that. At present state institutions are the enemy, the swamp, so what would a facist state with no centralised institutions look like. Dictators nowadays tend to be populists, good at social media and presenting themselves and their message, using technology as a tool of oppression, chasing fame and being popular. They represent one idea of personal freedom, the very opposite of the book. Dictators and facists have moved on since the 1950s and the dystopian vision in Prophet Song looks back.

What I really didn’t like, though, was the writing. At times it is hard to make sense of some of the sentences and there is little punctuation to guide you. I don’t mind that if what you are reading makes sense – Girl, Woman, Other for example – but here it doesn’t. The idea of fear is portrayed as a dark shadow infecting the lives and homes of people – nothing out of the ordinary here. But it is so overused towards the beginning of the book, I started to make a note of it each time it happened. When you start counting something in the writing, you know that it doesn’t work. The book opens in the twilight where it ‘gathers the last of the leaves and the leaves do not resist the dark but accept the dark in whisper’ and moves on to night time when the gardai knock on the door asking Eilish if they can speak to her husband. When they leave the darkness is left in the house. It is all very obvious. When Larry is finally interviewed and asked to prove that he has not been seditious, he sees a moth fly out of the mouth of one of his interviewers. It seems a clumsy way of extending the metaphor of darkness descending.

I understand that the judges had to vote again and again for six hours until they came up with this book as the winner. Because judging of awards is often a little opaque there is an irony here that it feels like people were made to vote and vote again until they all got the right answer. If I’m wrong, let me know.

Finally, I always look at the best of . . .’ books at the end of the year and draw up a master list. I have about 20 lists from newspapers and other places of influence and reviews and I think Prophet Song appears in one. In general, it is not deemed to be a book that is significant in people’s literary highlights of the year. The website states that it is to be ‘the best sustained work of fiction written in English and published in the UK and Ireland’ according to the judges and therein lies the rub. The judges. Although I do suspect that they couldn’t agree.

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