Arundhati Nath
23 Jan 2024

The Ruthless Terror of Grief

Paul Lynch’s Prophet Song overwhelmed me. I read it over three workday evenings, in an almost feverish pitch, sometimes breathlessly devouring the story as its horror unfolded - miserable and restless.  No, this isn’t a book for the faint-hearted; nor is it something you want to read if you are looking for a placid escape into another world.

The prose in its unwieldy, staccato and without-para-break style adds to the relentlessness of the catastrophe - it suffocates - and you try often to come up for air. Ireland, or specifically the city of Dublin, in which Lynch’s Booker-awarded dystopic novel is set, is falling apart - the government has been taken over by the Garda National Services Bureau, the GNSB who are really the secret police, and citizens have lost their powers. The Garda can arrest at will, make you disappear, make 17-year-olds enlist, take away your jobs, shut off provisions and roam the streets armed and weaponed.

The first page opens with Eilish, a microbiologist, a mother, a regular suburban, grocery-shopping woman-next-door with props you can identify with - an ailing, ageing father, a truculent teenage son, a sometimes sullen daughter, a back-talking restless tween, a baby who needs a booster seat and a husband who can’t find his slippers. Eilish opens the door one weekday evening to two Garda detectives, ominous and sinister, looking for her trade unionist teacher husband. Soon after, her husband, Larry, goes on a protest rally and vanishes, swallowed into a gaping, swirling black hole – where dissenters are sucked into – with no trace found forever.

Eilish tries her hardest to keep the family together even after this life-altering event happens and she is scraping the bottom of every unyielding source to find information that would lead her to her husband’s whereabouts, while her oldest son is enticed by the growing insurgents’ rebellion, her job is unceremoniously taken away, her neighbourhood butcher won’t serve her, and bombs go off in her backyard. Dublin is soon a war zone with the rebels and the military at war, hospitals have no space, children’s wards are burnt down and passports can’t be renewed without enquiries by the department of justice. There is no way out, the tentacles of the state are closing in and the rebel leaders are just high school dropouts who have no idea how to wade out of the chaos except with more gunfire. 

The grief in the book grows in a steady, silent rhythm – we read about freshly baked fruit cake along with the intractable fear of an unanswered mobile phone - it reaches a crescendo when the city is bombed, splintered, and a spectre of barricades and terrifying bus rides across borders and checkpoints into the heart of unthinkable darkness make us want to scream. We want to shake Eilish into leaving the city with whatever she has left, take heed of the hopelessness we, the unnerved readers, feel.

In his Booker interview, Lynch has said, “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…” But Prophet Song could be the crisis of anywhere we have recently watched on television or read in the news – the despair of trying to get out while under fire – Ukraine, Palestine, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia.  

As a mother, I acutely felt Eilish’s helpless panic as she tries to locate her children when they aren’t in front of her, her frenetic checking of text messages when she knows there is no reply; as a daughter, I could understand the steadfastness with which Eilish checks on her father everyday –  the oblivion of a ‘normal’ family unravelling came through in sharp, merciless clarity.

In fact, I took a long deep breath and sent a prayer for the world and its unknown future when I finished reading Prophet Song. Paul Lynch will be at the 17th Jaipur Literature Festival (1 – 5 Feb, 2024) and I have so many questions racing through my head to ask at his session. I hope I can ask at least some of them…