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Book Review: Paul Lynch's Prophet Song

If there ever were a book I wouldn't wish to re-read again, it would be Paul Lynch's Prophet Song. The winner of 2023 Booker Prize is dreadful not because of the writing quality of the author or his verbose ideas, but due to the dystopian reality it portrays, making one cringe, consciously realizing that not only could it happen but it's already happening in the world today.

In its true sense, a shudder ran through me while reading, witnessing how modern Ireland gradually descends into civil war, with the government completely restricting the rights of the citizens. Meanwhile the world remains merely indifferent spectators. Isn't it reminiscent of what happened in Syria, Ukraine, or Palestine? Don't dictatorships kill and oppress millions of people in African countries? Prophet Song avoids these politicized debates but rather focuses on an ordinary Irish family experiencing something they never would have imagined just yesterday.

Eilish, the mother of four who has just recently returned to work after the fourth baby, opens the door to find a detective inspector from the Garda National Services Bureau at her doorstep. He's looking for her husband Larry, a senior trade unionist. This unexpected but deeply unsettling encounter marks the beginning of what a law-abiding mother, living in a state that upholds the rule of law, would never have dreamt even in her worst nightmare.

Just days after this meeting, Larry participates in the unionists' rally and never comes back home. Eilish is left in the unknown about her husband's whereabouts, simultaneously forced to take care of their children on her own and to look after her dementia-gripped father. Never-ending paragraphs without single-outed dialogues, like a black wave, immerse the reader into a hopeless atmosphere where Eilish still believes her husband will return, even as we brace ourselves for even more harrowing episodes.

"History is a silent record of people who did not know when to leave," Eilish's sister, who lives in Canada, tells her. But Eilish still snaps that she won't move a bloody inch past her door until she sees her Larry home. Here, my frustration starts to surface: why is she so stubborn, why doesn't she realize it's time to save the children, as there's nothing good awaiting them in this country anymore. To the reader's greatest disappointment, even more tragic events will be needed before Eilish finally grasps how foolish and blind she was, missing opportunities to escape and secure not only a better life for all her children but also their very lives.

When their escape reaches the land's end and must follow into the sea, Eilish realizes that "what is sung by the prophets is but the same song sung across time...that the world is always ending over and over again in one place but not another and that the end of the world is always a local event, it comes to your country and visits your town and knocks on the door of your house and becomes to others but some distant warning, a brief report on the news, an echo of events that has passed into folklore..."

It's the most accurate metaphor one could use to describe the essence of our world. Throughout the book, the sole wish was for Eilish to successfully escape the country. But is our attitude towards those fleeing from tragedies in the real, not a literary, world, the same? Let's not be judges, as the end of the world can knock on our doors at any moment.


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