Paul Lynch Feared His Novel Would End His Career. It Won the Booker.

The New York Times

When Paul Lynch started writing his novel “Prophet Song,” he worried it might destroy his career.

The story — an unsettling dystopian parable — was stylistically daring, relentlessly dark and more emotionally taxing than anything he’d attempted before. He thought it would never get published. But when he sat down in his Dublin home and typed out the novel’s opening passages, he couldn’t stop.

“The damn thing had its own momentum,” Lynch said. “It just sucked me in.”

Four years later, “Prophet Song” won the Booker Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious literary awards, putting to rest any lingering self-doubt Lynch may have had about his future as a writer.

The novel, which Atlantic Monthly Press will release in the United States on Tuesday, follows Eilish, a biologist and mother of four whose busy domestic life in suburban Dublin is shattered when the secret police show up at her home looking for her husband, a senior leader of a teacher’s union. He disappears and never returns. As the country slides into totalitarianism and civil war, Eilish struggles to keep her traumatized family intact, burying herself in mundane household tasks as the world around them crumbles into chaos.

The narrative — written in breathless prose, without quotation marks or paragraph breaks — feels almost claustrophobic, closely tracking Eilish’s oscillation between panic, denial and grief rather than exploring the larger political forces driving the plot.


Literary critics have lauded “Prophet Song” as a frighteningly plausible parable that probes some of the most pressing social questions of our era. Some see the novel as an urgent message about complacency in the face of rising authoritarianism, as a wake up call for Western citizens who have grown indifferent to the plight of refugees, or as a cautionary tale about extremism and how quickly societies can fracture when political violence is normalized.

Lynch can see why readers draw those parallels. After winning the Booker, he’s been asked for his views on far right movements in Western Europe and about the recent riots in Dublin that were sparked by right wing agitators — an event that he found both shocking and depressingly predictable, as extremist ideology continues to spread.

But Lynch says he never set out to write a political novel. While he’s flattered by comparisons to classics like “1984” and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” he feels they are distant relatives. He deliberately left the political ideology in his novel vague, and never specified whether the catastrophe is unfolding in the future or in a counterfactual present, he said.

“My themes tend to be more metaphysical than political,” he said during an interview — his 37th in three days — over Zoom. “A lot of political fiction begins with its own answer — it knows the problem and it knows the solution — and so therefore, it’s about grievance. And I think the work of serious fiction must instead be grief: grief for the things we cannot control, grief for what cannot be understood, grief for what lies beyond us.”