Why Paul Lynch’s ‘Prophet Song’ Won 2023 Booker Prize

Paul Lynch

By Nehru Odeh

Irish writer, Paul  Lynch, has won this year’s Booker Prize. The 46-year-old writer was awarded the prize on Sunday 26 November for Prophet Song, a novel the judges described as “triumph of emotional storytelling.” By winning the highly-coveted prize, Lynch becomes the fifth Irish writer to win it, following the footsteps of Iris Murdoch, John Banville, Roddy Doyle and Anne Enright.

The novel has been compared to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Lynch received £50,000 and was presented with his trophy by Shehan Karunatilaka, last year’s winner, at a ceremony held at Old Billingsgate in London.

The other nominees were:   The Bee Sting by Paul Murray,  Western Lane by Chetna Maroo,  This Other Eden by Paul Harding, If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery, and  Study for Obedience by Sarah Bernstein.

Prophet Song, which is Lynch’s fifth novel, is an exhilarating, propulsive and confrontational portrait of a country – and a family – on the brink of catastrophe. Ireland is in the grip of a government that is taking a turn towards tyranny and Eilish Stack, the novel’s protagonist, soon finds herself trying to make sense of the nightmare of a collapsing society – assailed by unpredictable forces beyond her control and desperate to do whatever it takes to keep her family together.

Esi Edugyan, Chair of the 2023 judges, said:  ‘From that first knock at the door, Prophet Song forces us out of our complacency as we follow the terrifying plight of a woman seeking to protect her family in an Ireland descending into totalitarianism. We felt unsettled from the start, submerged in – and haunted by – the sustained claustrophobia of Lynch’s powerfully constructed world.

“He flinches from nothing, depicting the reality of state violence and displacement and offering no easy consolations. Here the sentence is stretched to its limits – Lynch pulls off feats of language that are stunning to witness. He has the heart of a poet, using repetition and recurring motifs to create a visceral reading experience.

“This is a triumph of emotional storytelling, bracing and brave. With great vividness, Prophet Song captures the social and political anxieties of our current moment. Readers will find it soul-shattering and true, and will not soon forget its warnings.’

However, Lynch has said he didn’t write the novel, which took him a decade, to sound a note of warning. “I didn’t write this book to specifically say ‘here’s a warning’, I wrote the book to articulate the message that the things that are happening in this book are occurring timelessly throughout the ages, and maybe we need to deepen our own responses to that kind of idea,” he said, later adding that he is “distinctly not a political novelist”.

Still. In another post, he said he was trying to see into the modern chaos. “I was trying to see into the modern chaos. The unrest in Western democracies. The problem of Syria – the implosion of an entire nation, the scale of its refugee crisis and the West’s indifference. Prophet Song is partly an attempt at radical empathy. To understand better, we must first experience the problem for ourselves. So I sought to deepen the dystopian by bringing to it a high degree of realism. I wanted to deepen the reader’s immersion to such a degree that by the end of the book, they would not just know, but feel this problem for themselves.”

Upon receiving the prize, Lynch, a former film critic, said: “It is with immense pleasure that I bring the Booker home to Ireland, I had a moment on holiday in Sicily many years ago where I had this flash of recognition, I knew that I needed to write, and that was the direction my life had to take. I made that decision that day to just swerve, and I swerved. And I’m bloody glad I did

Asked what he would spend the prize money on, Lynch said that “half of it has already gone” on his tracker mortgage.

Still, the judges final decision didn’t come easy.  Canadian novelist Edugyan, who has twice been shortlisted for the Booker prize herself, said the decision to award Lynch the £50,000 prize “wasn’t unanimous” and was settled on by discussion and multiple rounds of voting that lasted “about six hours” on Saturday.

However,  Edugyan said the panel “sought a winning novel that might speak to the immediate moment while also possessing the possibility of outlasting it”. She added: “In these troubled times, we sought a novel with a guiding vision – a book to remind us that we are more than ourselves, to remind us of all that is worth saving.”

When asked whether recent events had influenced the judges’ decision, Edugyan said “at some point in the discussions, maybe for a few minutes, this was introduced, this was discussed”. However, she said that timeliness “was not the reason that Prophet Song won the prize” – the judges simply felt it was a “truly a masterful work of fiction”.

Lynch, an internationally acclaimed novelist who has published five novels, winning several awards in the process,  was born in Limerick in 1977. He grew up in Co Donegal but currently lives in Dublin. He was previously the chief film critic of Ireland’s Sunday Tribune newspaper from 2007 to 2011 and wrote regularly for the Sunday Times on cinema.

Before Prophet Song, Lynch wrote Beyond the Sea, Grace, The Black Snow and Red Sky in Morning. His third novel, Grace, won the 2018 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year and the 2020 Ireland Francophonie Ambassadors’ Literary Award. His second novel, The Black Snow, won France’s bookseller prize, Prix Libr’à Nous for Best Foreign Novel.