What would a fascist coup d'état look like in an Anglophone country?
Paul Lynch poses this question in "Prophet Song," his beautifully written, ingenious, holy terror of a novel, chronicling one family's trauma when their world flips in a span of weeks. For his Booker Prize winner, Lynch draws from speculative classics such as "Steppenwolf" and "1984" but it's the realism, the everydayness, that mesmerizes us. His is no dystopian fantasy. This is now.
Dublin microbiologist Eilish Stack does double duty as Supermom, packing lunches for her adolescent children — Mark, Molly and Bailey — and tending to infant Ben, a surprise late addition. Her husband, Larry, is a higher-up in a trade union and thus an easy target for Ireland's right-wing government, which has invoked an Emergency Powers Act, permitting the Gardaí, the state police, to detain citizens without legal recourse.
There's a whiff of civil war in the air. After Larry is abducted during a protest and Mark joins up with rebels in the countryside, Eilish leans on what she knows — routines of school, career, parenting, planning a vacation — while maneuvering amid a long national nightmare.
She frequently checks in on her elderly father, Simon, a retired scientist who resides alone, banging around the early stages of dementia. His decline grounds her, a distraction from the political forces that stalk her. Lynch writes with a poet's mastery of metaphor: "She is watching her father's mind, seeing at work the neurological weather, a zone of low pressure giving to sudden inclemency, in five minutes' time there will be sunshine."
The novel quickens after Mark vanishes from a safehouse and his name and address are published. Gardaí drop by, unannounced. Rumors circulate, boys are gunned down for aiding the resistance. Friends spurn Eilish, she loses her job and her car is vandalized. Something violent and ugly metastasizes in Bailey; he lashes out at her. Eventually, she devises a scheme to flee; the lawlessness of a society built on laws jeopardizes their lives.
Although "Prophet Song" is bleak, Lynch's technique is sublime, with inventive syntax and an ear for quirks of rhythm. There are no discrete paragraphs, just blocks of text with sandwiched dialogue, sans quotation marks. He creates a narrative claustrophobia, a manic quality that matches Eilish's.
He knows precisely how to raise our pulses and tingle our scalps. Consider the iambic, quasi-Elizabethan twist in the last sentence of this passage: "None of this is real, she thinks, not this kitchen nor the flat in the garden, she will open the back door and instead of outside there will be the blind and monstered dark of dream." The noun "monster" tweaked into an adjective — I don't believe I've seen that.
Is "Prophet Song" prophetic? At a moment of global peril, with war and autocrats surging and dissent suppressed, Lynch rightly glances back to Orwell and Hesse in order to peer forward. We can only hope, like Eilish, for the fever dream to break.
Hamilton Cain, who reviews for a range of venues including the New York Times and Washington Post, lives in Brooklyn.
By: Paul Lynch.
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press, 320 pages, $26.