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Irish author Paul Lynch wins 2023 Booker Prize for Prophet Song

Lynch’s fifth novel, about a young woman trying to make sense of a collapsing society, was announced as the winner of the prestigious literary award at a glittering ceremony in London

Nicole Vassell
Sunday 26 November 2023 22:16 GMT
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Britain Booker Prize
Britain Booker Prize (Associated Press)

Irish author Paul Lynch has won the Booker Prize 2023 for his novel, Prophet Song.

In a ceremony held at Old Billingsgate, London on Sunday night, Lynch was honoured for his fifth novel. None of the six authors nominated for the award had been shortlisted before; in a first for the prize, three of them were called Paul.

Set in a dystopian Ireland, Prophet Song follows protagonist Eilish Stack as she tries to make sense of the nightmare of a collapsing society, hampered by unpredictable forces beyond her control and desperate to do whatever it takes to keep her family together.

Lynch, 46, was awarded the trophy by Sri Lankan author, Shehan Karunatilaka, who won last year for his book, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida. The trophy was designed by the children’s author and illustrator Jan Pieńkowski, and is named after Irish novelist Iris Murdoch, who won the Booker for her novel, The Sea, The Sea in 1978.

Winning the Booker Prize also comes with a prize of £50,000.

The keynote speech at the award ceremony was delivered by Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was released from prison in Iran last year.

In her address, she described the ways in which books had saved her when she was in solitary confinement, telling the gathered guests: “Books helped me to take refuge into the world of others when I was incapable of making one of my own.

“They salvaged me by being one of the very few tools I had, together with imagination, to escape the Evin [prison] walls without physically moving.”

The 2023 judging panel was chaired by twice-shortlisted novelist Esi Edugyan. She was joined by actor, writer and director Adjoa Andoh; poet, lecturer, editor and critic Mary Jean Chan; author and professor James Shapiro; and actor and writer Robert Webb.

At the ceremony, Bridgerton and Queen Charlotte star Andoh read an extract from the 1990 Booker Prize-winning novel Possession, in honour of the late AS Byatt, who died earlier this month.

Edugyan complimented Lynch’s depiction of “the reality of state violence and displacement and offering no easy consolations”, as well as his poetic use of language and sentence structure.

She added: “This is a triumph of emotional storytelling, bracing and brave. 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.”

Lynch is the fifth Irish author to win the Booker Prize, after Iris Murdoch, John Banville, Roddy Doyle and Anne Enright. The Northern Irish writer Anna Burns won in 2018.

Lynch was one of four Irish writers to make this year’s longlist in 2023. The shortlist, revealed in September, included debut novelists Jonathan Escoffery from the US and the UK’s Chetna Maroo, as well as fellow Irish writer Paul Murray, Canadian author Sarah Bernstein, and US author Paul Harding.

When asked whether Prophet Song was inspired by true events, Lynch said he wanted to immerse the reader in a world that feels so realistic that it would prompt them to think about the unrest that takes place all around the world.

“I was trying to see into the modern chaos,” he told the Booker Prizes website. “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 and the other shortlisted authors were all in attendance at Sunday evening’s ceremony.

Other guests included previous winners Ben Okri, Eleanor Catton and Alan Hollinghurst, as well as some of this year’s longlisted authors and many past shortlistees.

In addition, high-profile figures from across the cultural spectrum attended, including Valerie Amos, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Caitríona Balfe, Alfred Enoch, Bella and Esther Freud, Antony Gormley, Katy Hessel, Bianca Jagger, Annie MacManus, David Olusoga, Cornelia Parker, Nitin Sawhney and Charlene White.

Earlier this week, Queen Camilla hosted the shortlisted candidates for an event at Clarence House, where she thanked the writers “who enhance our life, we couldn’t do without you all”.

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