By Alex Marshall
When Paul Lynch, an Irish writer, started work on his fifth novel, he was thinking about the long civil war in Syria and the West’s apparent indifference to the people who fled the conflict.
So, he crafted a book that could bring that plight home.
That novel, “Prophet Song,” which imagines a near-future Ireland descending into totalitarianism, then a civil war that leads to families’ fleeing the country, has won the Booker Prize, the prestigious literary award.
On Sunday, Esi Edugyan, a novelist and the chair of this year’s judging panel, said “Prophet Song” resonated with contemporary crises including the Israel-Hamas war, but that the novel had won solely on its literary merits. “This is a triumph of emotional storytelling, bracing and brave,” Edugyan said in a news conference before the announcement.
The judges weren’t unanimous in their decision, even after six hours of debate, Edugyan said. Still, she added, the panel felt that “Prophet Song” was a worthy winner that “captures the social and political anxieties of our current moment.”
“Prophet Song,” which Grove Atlantic is set to publish in North America on Dec. 5, a week earlier than originally planned, beat five other shortlisted titles including Paul Murray’s “The Bee Sting,” Chetna Maroo’s “Western Lane” and Paul Harding’s “This Other Eden.” The other shortlisted novels were Jonathan Escoffery’s “If I Survive You,” and Sarah Bernstein’s “Study for Obedience.”
Founded in 1969, the Booker comes with a cash prize of 50,000 pounds, or roughly $63,000, and is awarded annually to the best novel written in English and published in Britain or Ireland. Previous winners include such literary giants as Hilary Mantel, Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood, although the prize is also known for helping create stars. Last year, Shehan Karunatilaka, a Sri Lankan novelist, won for “The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida,” a novel examining the trauma of his country’s civil war.
Lynch, 46, a former movie critic, made his literary debut in 2013 with “Red Sky in Morning,” set in the 19th century, about an Irishman who flees to America after killing a man. His other novels include “Beyond the Sea,” about two men stranded offshore, and “Grace,” set during an Irish famine. Katherine Grant, reviewing that book in The New York Times, joked that “it’s not difficult to tell the difference between Paul Lynch’s writing and a ray of sunshine.” Lynch had “an undiminished appetite for the depiction of suffering,” she added.
“Prophet Song” is set in a near future and centers on Eilish Stack, a scientist and mother of four, whose trade unionist husband is taken by the security forces, an early sign of growing authoritarian rule that eventually sees Ireland in the midst of a civil war.
The novel has received mixed reviews in Britain and Ireland. Lucy Popescu in The Financial Times said it was “a compassionate, propulsive and timely novel that forces the reader to imagine — what if this was me?” Aimée Walsh, in The Observer, called it “a crucial book for our current times,” and Laura Hackett, in The Times of London, labeled it “an exercise in totalitarianism-by-numbers.”
Anthony Cummins said in The Guardian that there was “something almost obscenely decadent” about the book’s recasting of sea-crossing refugees as middle-class Europeans. But “whatever else it is, ‘Prophet Song’ is a novel to argue about.” This year’s Booker judges, in their six hours of deliberations, perhaps proved that point. “There was a different way that things could have gone,” Edugyan said in the news conference. Ultimately, she added, the judges all “felt that this was the book that we wanted to present to the world — that this was truly a masterful work of fiction.”