The Story of a Country’s Descent Into Dictatorship in Paul Lynch’s ‘Prophet Song’

Lee Polevoi


Prophet Song: A Novel

By Paul Lynch

Atlantic Monthly Press

309 pages


In Prophet Song, Paul Lynch’s 2023 Man Booker-prizewinning novel, the setting is present-day Dublin (or soon thereafter). Larry and Eilish Stack, happily married professionals, have a teenage son and daughter, and two younger children. Eilish is a molecular biologist, Larry a teacher and fervent trade union official.


On the second page of this deeply harrowing novel, two plainclothes policemen show up one evening at their home, asking for Larry. The men indirectly represent the National Alliance Party, which has assumed power in the Republic of Ireland, declaring a state of emergency and sharply curtailing individual rights. Eilish’s husband isn’t home, and she turns the men away.



Later, after taking part in an anti-government protest rally, Larry is “disappeared.”


From there, things for the Stack family go from bad to much, much worse. From the moment the men appear on their doorstep (“standing before the porch glass almost faceless in the dark”), a palpable air of menace hangs over the narrative and doesn’t let up until the last page.


Under the National Alliance Party, “normal” rules of daily life in Ireland are indefinitely suspended. As any of us would, Eilish clings to the belief that the government has made a terrible mistake, civil liberties will soon be reinstated, and her husband returned to the family home. Her aged father tells her otherwise:



“ … Eilish, it is really quite simple, the NAP is trying to change what you and I call reality, they want to muddy it like water, if you say one thing is another thing and you say it enough times, then it must be so, and if you keep saying it over and over people accept it as true—this is an old idea, of course, but you’re watching it happen in your own time and not in a book.”


After weeks of anxiety and confusion, her oldest son, Mark, 17, agrees to be smuggled across the border into safer territory. For Eilish, the loss is almost unbearable: “One day you are a house of six, then you are five and soon you’ll be four.”


For many readers, the story of a democratic country's descent into dictatorship requires no great leap of imagination. Lynch makes no reference to how this situation came to pass, but the novel’s premise seems altogether plausible.


Scenes move quickly in Prophet Song, despite an absence of quotation marks or paragraph breaks. This immersive approach captures the Stack household’s claustrophobic air, and along with Eilish, we learn to dread whatever lies around the corner.



Lynch’s first novel, Red Sky in Morning, wore the influence of Cormac McCarthy not very lightly. The new novel has its own momentous voice and power, though that influence lingers on:


“Then she sees it, a lone magpie tricked to a tree, watching for a time how the bird flicks its wings yet remains fixed to the branch as it bends with the wind, seeing now that it is not she who must hold on but Larry, he must hold on and meet whatever he is being met with, sensing his strength now and knowing it, stepping inside his strength and clasping it to her body.”


Prophet Song isn’t a novel that’s easy to read. Among its litany of horrors is a particularly shocking scene when the reader’s gaze slows to a crawl in dire anticipation of the outcome. But it all works because Eilish and her family members are such compelling, well-drawn characters. Her story—told in sentences long and short that roll over one another like waves on a shoreline—never becomes sentimental nor does it relieve us of its terrors.  


An extraordinary achievement, worthy of the Booker Prize.


Author Bio:

Lee Polevoi is Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic. His new novel, The Confessions of Gabriel Ash, was published in 2023.


For Highbrow Magazine


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