When is it time to flee your country? When the election doesn’t go your way? Maybe that’s too rash. When civil liberties and free speech are curtailed in the name of public safety and national security? We’ve always been able to hold such things at bay — perhaps there’s still a chance to turn back the tide. What about when violent mobs feel emboldened enough to riot, as they did in Dublin on Nov. 23 of this year or in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021? The rule of law will prevail, we tell ourselves. The rot will go no further. There will be no great unraveling. That is something that happens in other places, you might think — not here.
That’s certainly how Eilish Stack, the woman at the center of Paul Lynch’s gripping 2023 Booker Prize-winning novel, “Prophet Song,” feels. She has faith in the stability of her native Ireland. She trusts that her rights are inviolable, and that the institutions of her government, her community, and her culture can withstand the machinations of the authoritarian regime that has taken control in Dublin. But when her husband, an organizer for the local teacher’s union, is carted away — “disappeared” — in the dead of night by a squad of secret policemen, Eilish is thrust into a new reality, one for which this middle class mother of four is devastatingly unprepared.
“History,” her sister tells her, “is a silent record of people who did not know when to leave.” It’s a warning Eilish fails to heed as she watches her neighbors disappear one by one and sees the courts and legislature turned against the people. Before she knows it, a civil war has arrived at her doorstep. With hope dwindling, she struggles to keep her family from falling apart as the rebels clash with government forces on the streets of Dublin.
As Eilish’s circumstances deteriorate, Lynch’s dense, lyrical prose barrels down on you relentlessly. As you read, you feel precious time slipping away, the inexorable future rushing toward you. He eschews quotation marks and paragraph breaks, and the result is a chaotic, disorienting whirlwind that amplifies the furious action of the narrative and plants you firmly in Eilish’s weary, fractured state of mind:
“Eilish walks toward her car hearing the woman’s voice, seeing the counterfeit streets and feeling breathless, scared and alone, she has to think for a moment where she left the car, she parked it on the street close to the Center for Legal Studies, watching the Touran as she approaches sensing that something is wrong, seeing the tyres slashed, the front light kicked in, the wing mirror lying on the ground.”
She stumbles through the events of the book as if with blinders on, and we share her narrow perspective — Lynch gives no context for Ireland’s descent into totalitarianism, no motive for the rise of the malevolent National Alliance party, and little sense of what the wider world thinks of what has transpired. His concern is not with the geopolitical cliches of dystopian fiction, but rather with the emotional experience of someone who is being slowly crushed by forces outside of her control. “We have entered the tunnel and there is no going back,” she tells herself. “We just need to keep going and going until we reach the light on the other side.”
As grim as the descent into disorder is, it’s the second half of the book, where Eilish finally is compelled to seek relief across the border in Northern Ireland, that is truly harrowing. Lynch depicts in great detail the dehumanization that comes with fleeing, as Eilish is confronted by the callousness of petty bureaucrats, border agents, and human traffickers who demean her, exploit her, and strip her of her personhood. “She tells herself not to look behind as they cross the border, she turns around and a stone forms in her mouth so that she must whisper as she speaks, the stone sliding down her throat so that she must breathe around it as she shows her documents.”
Lynch, inspired by the plight of Syrian refugees, has perhaps wisely opted not to try and tell their story on their behalf. But his solution — to substitute Dublin for Aleppo — hardly seems adequate. He has said that his intention is to foster empathy among his predominantly first-world audience by transposing the plight of displaced peoples from the Global South onto someone they can more easily identify with. In this, he concedes too much, and reifies the false idea that those people are different from us in some fundamental way that makes them unsympathetic, their experiences unfathomable.
While the threat of reactionary populism is indeed a concern for Western democracies, there’s something a little perverse in fantasizing about all this misery befalling an imaginary woman in Dublin when it’s a contemporary reality for as many as 100 million people in the world today. A true exercise in radical empathy would be to explore why someone like Eilish, an affluent, educated woman living in relative comfort in an imperfect, yet vastly more secure society, likely wouldn’t be able to muster up any concern for her counterparts in places like Syria, Sudan, or the Tigray region of Ethiopia. Or why she might prefer to read a book like “Prophet Song,’’ which flatters and foregrounds her own perspective, than engage with a real-world account of a foreign family’s forced migration.
That’s a story that needs to be told, and a story we would be well served by. Because the West’s struggle to show empathy for these immigrants and refugees is not due to some alienating attribute they possess that can be solved by a simple substitution; it’s a bigger problem that lies deep within us.
By Paul Lynch
Atlantic Monthly Press, 320 pp., $26
Michael Patrick Brady is a freelance book critic from Boston. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.