Paul Lynch, shortlisted author of the Booker Prize 2023, at the shortlist announcement at the newly reopened National Portrait Gallery, London

Notes on Booker Prize 2023 winner Prophet Song

The Glasgow Guardian gives a snap analysis of the winner of the Booker Prize, having attended the awards ceremony where it was announced.

Paul Lynch, winner of The Booker Prize 2023, told the awards ceremony that he risked “dooming his career” by writing Prophet Song. His dystopian novel follows an ordinary, middle-class family, The Stacks, whose lives deteriorate in tandem with the city where they live, Dublin. Written poetically, with no paragraph breaks or speech marks, its tragedy lies in the helplessness of its characters – its floundering mother, Eilish, and her bed-wetting, school-skipping children. Prophet Song is formidable for its ambiguity – the lack of any given timeframe; of an ideology underpinning the political party exacting authoritarian rule; of any substantive description of Dublin itself prior to its barren, war-torn state. Lynch saves the details for what happens behind closed doors, what he described in the post-announcement press conference as the “unrecorded” – the staff suddenly disappearing from work, the daughter who no longer comes down for breakfast. 

“It’s soul work” scrutinising and absorbing the entries, according to judge Adjoa Andoh. Other shortlisted novels are arguably as emotionally charged as Prophet Song, whether that be the simple tragedy of a daughter losing her mother aged 11 (in Chetna Maroo’s Western Lane), or the alienation and antisemitism experienced by Sarah Bernstein’s unreliable narrator in Study for Obedience. How, then, to decide? As she announced the winner, the chair of judges for this year’s prize, Esi Edugyan, professed the value of a book that “startles, shakes you from complacency”. “You know from your bones”, she said. Reading the work transported her to the “possible”.

Can a world described by Lynch himself as “counterfactual” be possible? Possible right now it is perhaps not, with Ireland’s current political circumstances seeming far removed from the carnage and chaos that creates queues of desperate refugees or hospitals refusing to treat their patients. But if any one concept underpinned this year’s Booker Prize ceremony, it is escapism. The escapism Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe spoke of in her keynote speech – what she says “salvaged” her while detained as a political prisoner -included reading The Handmaid’s Tale, otherwise banned in Iran, or War and Peace, like she did when she was free, with her husband, with a cup of coffee. Escapism can still be profound, escapism can be educational, or alarming.

Lynch ended his acceptance speech by noting the pleasure of being able to “bring the prize home to Ireland”. Amidst his emotions he presented himself carefully and seriously, describing his own work as “like an equation”, and “complex”. He spent a lot of the press conference issuing denials and rebuttals. Despite its title Prophet Song is “not a prophetic statement”, and he is not himself “a political spokesperson” (to the ire of several journalists asking for his stance on Covid-19 restrictions, or on the rise of the far right). “It’s not a political book”, he said. “It’s about the family, it’s about Eilish Stack.”

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