Irish writer Paul Lynch has won the Booker Prize 2023 for his dystopian novel Prophet Song. Prophet Song (Oneworld) is an propulsive and confrontational portrait of a country – and an ordinary family – on the brink of catastrophe.
On a dark, wet evening in Dublin, scientist and mother-of-four Eilish Stack answers her front door to find the secret police at her doorstep, wanting to speak with her husband.
Things are falling apart. Ireland is in the grip of a government that is taking a turn towards tyranny. And as the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, Eilish finds herself caught up in the nightmare logic of a collapsing society – assailed by unpredictable forces beyond her control and forced to do whatever it takes to keep her family together.
Lynch received a cash prize of £50,000 ($63,411) and was presented with his trophy by Shehan Karunatilaka, the 2022 winner, at a ceremony held at Old Billingsgate in London on November 26.
“Well, there goes my hard-won anonymity,” said Lynch in his acceptance speech. “This was not an easy book to write. The rational part of me believed I was dooming my career by writing this novel, though I had to write the book anyway. We do not have a choice in such matters.”
“My writing has saved me. I believe that literary style should be a way of knowing how the world has met and its unfolding. Sentences should press into the unknown moment, into the most obscure hidden aspects of life, that which is barely known but asking to be revealed,” he added.
Esi Edugyan, chair of 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,” Edugyan added.
“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,” Lynch said.
“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,” he added.
Lynch was born in Limerick in 1977, grew up in Co Donegal, and 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.
Lynch becomes the fifth Irish writer to win the Booker Prize. He is an internationally acclaimed Irish novelist who has published five novels, winning several awards in the process.
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.
Lynch says that it took him four long years to write.
“My son, Elliot, was born just before I began to write, and by the end, he was riding a bike. The spewing out of drafts is not for me. I write (mostly) five days a week, a few hundred careful words a day, often researching as I go, in a process whereby I edit as I write. These days, my first drafts come fairly close to the final one.
"I had previously spent six months writing the wrong book, and knew it too, but kept hammering through rock in the hope of a breakthrough. Then one Friday, about 3pm, I stopped writing and thought, this is the wrong book – I will return on Monday morning and start a new one. I could sense there was something lurking just out of sight, but I didn’t know what it might be,” he adds.
The Booker Prize 2023 shortlist included Canadian Sarah Bernstein and American Jonathan Escoffery.