The 2023 Booker winner, Paul Lynch’s Prophet Song, is a vastly admirable book, but there is something deeply odd about it: it is a novel about a dystopian coup that takes down Ireland’s ‘liberal democracy’, not about the dystopian coup that was actually happening at the time it was written.
By definition, most novels are stories rendered from imagined events, set in the past, present or future. But there are occasional examples that are fictionalised accounts of real events – almost always, by definition, from the past, and rather contradictorily termed ‘non-fiction novels’ – as well as imagined vistas from the future – almost always dystopias, most famously, George Orwell’s 1984.
But what are we to make of a novel depicting a fictional dystopia that was written while a real dystopia was unfolding outside the window of the room in which it was written? ‘Untruthful fiction,’ perhaps, or ‘novelised evasion’. For Prophet Song, the fifth novel by the Irish writer, is likely to establish its author’s reputation, though not as the 21st century’s Orwell or Solzhenitzyn. A novel about an imagined dystopia, written during the infancy of an actual dystopia, is surely a fascinating concept (perhaps the plot line of a novel), but also a different yardstick by which the book must be judged than if the actual dystopia had not happened.
Prophet Song is a book of which it might be said that the standard publisher’s indemnifying ‘This is a work of fiction’ blurb was perhaps never quite so true. It depicts a coup, occurring solely in Ireland, imposed by a ‘far right’ populist insurgency. In shortlisting the book in September, the Booker judges declared:
‘Paul Lynch’s harrowing and dystopian Prophet Song vividly renders a mother’s determination to protect her family as Ireland’s liberal democracy slides inexorably and terrifyingly into totalitarianism.