The chillingly plausible authoritarianism of 'Prophet Song'

This Booker Prize winner shows how democracy can crumble from within

A closeup of Paul Lynch's hands holding up his book, "Prophet song", at the Booker Prize awards 2023
(Image credit: Illustration by Julia Wytrazek / Getty Images)

It turns out that the scariest book of 2023 wasn't a horror novel at all, but Irish novelist Paul Lynch's Booker Prize-winning "Prophet Song." Set in an unnamed Irish city (with named landmarks pointing to Dublin) in an alternate version of the present, "Prophet Song" begins with a late-night knock on the door at Eilish and Larry Stack's family home. Larry is out working late — a higher-up in the teachers' union, he is plotting protests against the newly elected (also unnamed) Party and its various assaults on civil rights and human dignity. The visitor turns out to be a young detective in the new Garda National Services Bureau (GNSB), a kind of Irish Stasi or KGB tasked with cracking down on dissenters and troublemakers in the new order.

"It's probably nothing," Larry says nonchalantly when he gets home later and hears about the interrogators. Like so many characters in the novel, he cannot believe that such horrors are on his doorstep. But before long, Larry is disappeared without explanation by the GNSB, plunging Eilish into a waking nightmare of caring for their four children, ranging in age from a baby to a pair of angsty high schoolers, as society disintegrates around them. It begins with street violence and mass arrests, then escalates into full-blown civil war. 

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