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'Prophet Song' is a beautifully-written, slow descent into fascism

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, says that if you want to start the new year off with a stunning and topical work of literature, you should read "Prophet Song" by Paul Lynch, the novel that recently won the 2023 Booker Prize. Here's her review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Most of the characters in Paul Lynch's Booker Prize-winning novel, "Prophet Song," don't want to believe that fascism is taking shape before their eyes in Ireland. Listen. It will turn out to be nothing, says a trade union official named Larry to his wife after he's been summoned to meet with a newly empowered secret police agency. When Larry never returns home from that meeting, Eilish, his wife and the heroine of this novel, keeps holding fast to the belief that he's just been detained, that his phone is just locked away somewhere, and that's why her calls go unanswered. Metaphorically speaking, the phrase, it can't happen here is the enabling fiction that Eilish and many of her neighbors cling to, even as food shortages lay waste to supermarket shelves, and power is cut off to ATM machines, and democratic freedoms evaporate.

"Prophet Song" is a beautifully written, slow descent into the maelstrom. The authoritarian National Alliance Party has been voted into power two years before the novel opens and is now extending its reach into all areas of Irish life - schools, workplaces, everyday exchanges between people and shops. The draw of Lynch's harrowing story lies in its pacing. Each slow step further down into tyranny is propelled by denial. At the center of the story is Eilish, a scientist and mother of four living in Dublin who keeps showing up for work and chauffeuring the kids to school, even as she frantically tries to locate her husband. Like so many other suspected dissidents, he's disappeared into the maw of authoritarian government.

Early in the novel, Eilish visits her aged father, Simon, also once a scientist but now suffering the onset of dementia. Despite his cognitive fragility, however, Simon sees the writing on the wall more clearly than Eilish. He tells her, we are both scientists, Eilish. We belong to a tradition. But tradition is nothing more than what everyone can agree on - the scientists, the teachers, the institutions. If you change ownership of the institutions, then you can change ownership of the facts. You can alter the structure of belief, what is agreed upon. 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.

What just listening to, instead of reading, that passage can't tell you, is that it's only a fraction of one single sentence that runs well over half a page. Lynch's striking stream of consciousness-like style throughout this novel imparts a dreamy unreality to events that Eilish and other characters would rather not face. As weeks go by and Larry remains missing, Eilish's 16-year-old son Mark joins the resistance. And her daughter Molly falls into a depression and stops eating. Eilish's sister in Canada earlier urged her to flee Ireland, but now the exit doors are slammed shut, and armed warfare has broken out. Horror ensues. Eilish recalls her self-satisfied sister lecturing on the phone, telling her that history is a silent record of people who did not know when to leave. Given her current trapped situation, Eilish now feels that history is a silent record of people who could not leave. It is a record of those who did not have a choice.

Lynch has said in interviews that he began writing "Prophet Song" in 2018 and that he did not conceive of it as a prophetic statement. And it may not be, but that's in large part because, as Lynch observes, the world has lived versions of this many times and is living them in some places even now. This horrifying yet lovely novel would be a masterpiece even in a time of halcyon equality and justice for all. But that time is not this time.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan is a professor of literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Prophet Song" by Paul Lynch. It won the 2023 Booker Prize.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, I'll speak with Bradley Cooper, who wrote, directed and stars in the new film "Maestro" about composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. We'll also be joined by the film's conducting consultant, conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin. He conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. I hope you'll join us. To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @nprfreshair.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL CHARLAP'S "COOL")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham, with engineering today from Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL CHARLAP'S "COOL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Maureen Corrigan
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.