CW: death, war 

With Valentine’s Day just passed, the world has been filled with a lot of love. In the midst of my year abroad in Italy, love has compelled me even to the point of booking a flight right back to London to spend Valentine’s Day with my boyfriend. In supermarkets, I saw mountains of roses, begging to be sold to that person who shops so last-minute. In the streets were many couples, intertwined at the arms, chocolates and gifts in hand. Aside from the extortionate amount of money that people end up spending during holidays like these, I really did feel loved spending the day with my boyfriend, getting to have what was essentially a 12 hour date from lunch until midnight. 

On the flight to London, however, I’d brought a book with me that I’d intended to finish. I was in a bit of a reading rut (well, just with this one book) as I bought it solely due to its prizewinning nature. Prophet Song by Paul Lynch had won the 2023 Booker Prize, and since I consider myself to be an avid reader, I was determined to get through it and see for myself what the hype was about. When I’d brought it on the plane with me, I was about 80 pages in, and while the premise of the book seemed interesting to me, I felt like I was never going to finish it because it was about something that I didn’t really understand. 

Prophet Song takes place in a dystopian Ireland where a totalitarian government has just taken over and a war is about to break out. Eilish Stack, scientist and mother of four, opens her front door in the middle of the night to discover that her husband Larry has been arrested and detained. Due to his involvement in a trade union, Eilish is unable to have him freed and has to survive taking care of her children, one of whom has just been conscripted, as well as her father, who is suffering from dementia. Eilish constantly plays tug of war with her children, pleading her son not to go to war, but when he decides to avoid conscription by going into hiding, she slowly loses touch with him until he is untraceable. The war becomes more severe with families being torn apart. Her daughter Molly sinks into a deep depression due to the anxiety of her father being possibly dead, and when Eilish grapples with the rebellious nature of her sons, she is forced to cling onto only the remembered fragments of her family.

During my initial reading of the first 100 pages, I felt that it was very heavy on setting up the premise of the novel, exploring the complicated system of the Garda National Services Bureau (GNSB), an Irish secret police force. The world-building, whilst convincing, slowed down the pacing of the plot itself, meaning that I wasn’t truly hooked into the story until over the 100 page mark. Once the focus shifted solely to the Stack family, I felt like I could really connect with the characters. Eilish is an anxiety-ridden yet strong-willed woman, determined to keep her family together, and immediately I could see the established family dynamics. The constant clash between Eilish and her eldest son Mark, as well as struggling to take care of her own father, felt like real family issues. Furthermore, the topic of motherhood was beautifully explored, showing the desperation and unconditional nature of a mother’s love.

But the moment which truly made me sob on the plane had to be surrounding Eilish’s middle son, Bailey. Emerging into adolescence, Bailey is defiant and disagrees with many of Eilish’s parenting decisions, particularly regarding her need to protect her children throughout the war. He openly criticises her role as a mother, arguing that she is no good, even though she is truly doing her best and it simply goes unappreciated by him. When the government begins to bomb the city, Bailey gets into an accident wherein his skull is penetrated by shrapnel. Forced to go to a hospital that had also been destroyed during the bombing, Bailey is unable to receive adequate care and is therefore transferred to a military hospital in the middle of the night, unbeknownst to Eilish. When she finally arrives at the new hospital, there is no sign of Bailey, told only that she should check the morgue. After searching through several body bags, she discovers the corpse of Bailey, disfigured and dishevelled. Between sobs, Eilish stands over the lifeless body of her young son, refusing to believe that he truly is dead.

Paul Lynch does such an amazing job in depicting the pure torment of discovering your children’s corpses, and then the quiet grieving and masks of composure for the sake of family. In devastating times, such as the current ongoing wars in both Ukraine and Palestine, this image is burned into my memory. While Prophet Song is fiction, the thought that this is in fact happening all across the world, tearing families apart, is a horrendously gut wrenching feeling. How can a parent ever possibly accept that their child is dead? It is so unnatural, so inconceivable. When the media coverage surrounding Israel’s invasion of Palestine is beyond inadequate and skewed, there is something so heartbreakingly poignant about Lynch being able to encapsulate such pain through one mother and her son.

The pain and sorrow transcends the space of fiction, and through shedding tears from reading Prophet Song, I become a little closer to understanding the sheer horror of victims of war. It is difficult to picture the thought of thousands of people getting killed every day, a thought I can’t even imagine. Somehow, the focus on one family amplifies the devastation and grief in a way that the news or media could never achieve, and for that, I am so grateful for fiction. It is not only a story about totalitarian Ireland, but rather, a cry for the many families around the world who cannot express their grief. It feels dystopian in theory but it really isn’t such an unbelievable story when considering just how many countries have Prophet Song as their reality. I think of Neil Gaiman’s words about the role of fiction, and feel it to be very fitting in describing this novel.

Fiction gives us empathy: it puts us inside the minds of other people, gives us the gifts of seeing the world through their eyes. Fiction is a lie that tells us true things, over and over.

I see this now, more than ever.