Irish author Paul Lynch has won the 2023 Booker Prize for his novel Prophet Song, which portrays a futuristic Ireland ruled by an authoritarian party called National Alliance.
The £50,000 award, or $85,955, was handed out Sunday evening at a gala event at the historic Old Billingsgate hall in central London.
“It’s with immense pleasure that I bring the Booker home to Ireland,” Mr. Lynch said after receiving the Booker trophy, adding that he plans to use the money to pay down his mortgage.
Mr. Lynch, 46, was one of two Irish authors among the six finalists. The short list also included a pair of Americans, one Briton and Canada’s Sarah Bernstein, 36, who was nominated for her novel Study for Obedience, which won this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize.
Prophet Song centres around Eilish Stack, a Dublin microbiologist, and her family as they struggle to cope with the country’s slide toward a police state. After the disappearance of her husband, Larry, a senior figure in the teachers’ trade union, Ms. Stack must decide whether to leave with her four children.
Mr. Lynch said he started writing the book in 2018 amid the war in Syria and the rise of populism in the United States and Europe. However, he said it was not meant to be a political commentary, but instead a story about a family.
“I didn’t write this book to specifically say, ‘Here’s a warning.’ I wrote the book to articulate the message that the things that are happening in this book are occurring timelessly throughout the ages,” he said Sunday. “And maybe we need to deepen our own responses to that kind of idea.”
But when asked about the recent anti-immigrant riots in Dublin, Mr. Lynch demurred and replied: “We can see it as a warning. I think we should see it as a warning.”
Canadian novelist Esi Edugyan, who chaired the judges panel, described the book as “a masterful work of fiction.”
“This is a book that really takes you into dire times and really forces you to feel the things that the characters feel,” Ms. Edugyan told reporters on Sunday.
The judges’ decision was not unanimous. The five-member panel spent six hours on Saturday discussing the short list and went through several rounds of voting before settling on Mr. Lynch’s novel.
Prophet Song was near the top of every judge’s list in part because of Mr. Lynch’s lyrical writing style. “We did want to look for a writer who was pushing the line a little bit, somebody who was exploring language,” she said.
This is Mr. Lynch’s fifth novel. He was born in Limerick and spent much of his early career in journalism, which included serving as the chief film critic for Ireland’s Sunday Tribune from 2007 to 2011.
Mr. Lynch said he had something of an epiphany while on holiday that led him to become a full-time author. “I’d reached a point in my life where I realized that I exhausted all the possibilities,” he said Sunday. “I had a moment on holidays in Sicily many years ago where I had this flash of recognition. I knew that I needed to write and that was the direction my life had to take.”
He wrote parts of the novel during the pandemic when he suffered from long COVID. But the lockdowns and restrictions of the pandemic did not find their way into the book, nor did the politics.
“I’m distinctly not a political novelist,” he said. “I’m more interested in, to use an old-fashioned term, metaphysics. I’m more interested in life and death and power and powerlessness. And how we don’t know the world and how we are forced to make choices without knowing what the answers are going to be, and how we reap the bitter crop of that.”
Sunday’s award gala featured a keynote address from Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian charity worker who spent six years in a Tehran prison on charges of spying.
Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was released last year from the notorious Evin Prison, spoke about the books she read during her imprisonment.
“Books helped me to take refuge into the world of others when I was incapable of making one of my own,” she said. “They salvaged me by being one of the very few tools I had, together with imagination, to escape the Evin walls without physically moving.”
Among the novels she read was a Farsi translation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which had been sent in the mail to another prisoner.
“Who thought a book banned in Iran could find its way to prison through the post?” she told the audience. “When we left, we all bequeathed books to the secret library in the ward to keep our stories alive for others to come, just like those who left their books for us to survive.”
The other shortlisted books were; If I Survive You, by American author Jonathan Escoffery; This Other Eden by Paul Harding, who is also American; The Bee Sting, by Irish novelist Paul Murray; Western Lane by British writer Chetna Maroo; and Study for Obedience by Ms. Bernstein, who is Canadian but lives in Scotland.