Paul Lynch wins Booker Prize for Prophet Song

Irish author’s fifth novel, set in an Ireland descending into chaos, is awarded £50,000 prize

Paul Lynch has won the 2023 Booker Prize for his novel, Prophet Song, becoming the sixth Irish author to win the most influential English-language fiction prize since it began in 1969 and the first since Anna Burns for Milkman in 2018.

It comes just over a year after he was diagnosed with cancer, as he disclosed in a recent Irish Times interview, but he has since been given the all-clear after treatment.

Prophet Song explores the rise of political extremism and the plight of refugees. Eilish Stack, the novel’s protagonist, tries to make sense of a nightmarish social collapse as her union leader husband is detained by secret police, desperate to do whatever it takes to keep her family together.

After receiving the award, Lynch said: “This was not an easy book to write. The rational part of me believed I was dooming my career by writing this novel. Though I had to write the book anyway. We do not have a choice in such matters.”


He also thanked “all the children of this world who need our protection, yet have lived, and continue to live through the terrors depicted in this book”.

“Thank you so very much,” Lynch added. “It is with immense pleasure that I bring the Booker home to Ireland.”

During a press conference later on Sunday evening, Lynch said he was “astonished” by the violent disturbances on the streets of Dublin last week.

“I recognise that energy is always under the surface, what’s happening in Dublin, we can see (the book) as a warning.”

Lynch said he was “distinctly not a political novelist” and his book is really about “grief”, as it tells the story of a woman who has her husband taken away by the newly formed Irish secret police.

Esi Edugyan, chair of this year’s judges and twice shortlisted for the £50,000 prize herself, said: “Prophet Song forces us out of our complacency as we follow the terrifying plight of a woman seeking to protect her family in an Ireland descending into totalitarianism. We felt unsettled from the start, submerged in – and haunted by – the sustained claustrophobia of Lynch’s powerfully constructed world.

“With great vividness, Prophet Song captures the social and political anxieties of our current moment. Readers will find it soul-shattering and true, and will not soon forget its warnings.”

Edugyan, whose fellow judges were actors and writers Robert Webb and Adjoa Andoh; poet Mary Jean Chan; and academic James Shapiro, praised Lynch’s use of language. “Here the sentence is stretched to its limits – Lynch pulls off feats of language that are stunning to witness. He has the heart of a poet, using repetition and recurring motifs to create a visceral reading experience. This is a triumph of emotional storytelling, bracing and brave.”

Edugyan said Lynch had emerged as the winner after a six-hour discussion on Saturday and that the decision had not been unanimous. Asked whether last Thursday’s far-right-inspired riot in Dublin had formed part of the debate, she said that it had been raised but wasn’t a key factor.

“It is a literary prize for the most accomplished work. The guiding principle is: does this book succeed artistically? One cannot let world events decide which book wins. Having said that, we wanted to choose a title that reflected what we are grappling with right now. All six books spoke to our times but also felt timeless.”

Reviews were definitely not part of the conversation, Edugyan said. “You don’t want to be swayed in any way. We did want to look for a writer who was pushing the line, advancing the form, not just structure and story but also language.”

Asked why he chose to set his novel in a dystopian Ireland, and if it was inspired by real-world events, Lynch told the Booker Prizes website: “I was trying to see into the modern chaos. The unrest in Western democracies. The problem of Syria – the implosion of an entire nation, the scale of its refugee crisis and the West’s indifference. Prophet Song is partly an attempt at radical empathy. To understand better, we must first experience the problem for ourselves. So I sought to deepen the dystopian by bringing to it a high degree of realism. I wanted to deepen the reader’s immersion to such a degree that by the end of the book, they would not just know, but feel this problem for themselves.”

Lynch’s win seals an exceptionally strong year for Irish writing. Elaine Feeney and Sebastian Barry made the longlist while Paul Murray was also shortlisted for The Bee Sting, which last week was named Irish Novel of the Year at the Irish Book Awards. “None of this would be possible without the support of the Irish state,” he said. “I received two Arts Council bursaries during the four years it took to write this book. Writers like Beckett or Joyce don’t just produce great works of literature, they transmit into the culture a massive energy and we’re still drawing on that, whether we realise it or not.”

The author was born in Limerick in 1977, grew up in Co Donegal and lives in Dublin. He was the Sunday Tribune film critic from 2007 to 2011. Prophet Song is Lynch’s fifth novel after Beyond the Sea, Grace, which won the 2018 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, The Black Snow and Red Sky in Morning.

Prophet Song is published by Oneworld, an independent publisher that won the prize two years running with Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings in 2015 and Paul Beatty’s The Sellout in 2016. Lynch said: “Juliet [Mabey, his publisher and editor] continues to publish authors who play to the edges, whether or not they deliver commercially. Many imprints at the major publishing houses are more risk averse and this is why Oneworld, along with Fitzcarraldo, and other exciting indie houses, continue to garner acclaim and prizes.”

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle is Books Editor of The Irish Times