Westwood Books and the Booker Prize plus review of the winning title, Prophet Song

Our bookseller Ellie explains our Booker Prize Indie Spotlight fame and gives a brilliant review of the winning title, Prophet Song

October and November were exciting months here at Westwood Books due to our involvement in the Booker Prize Indie Spotlight Competition.

This year, in anticipation of the 2023 Booker Prize Ceremony, the organisation invited independent bookshops to design a display for the 2023 shortlist. They would then pick six winners from across the country, each receiving a bundle of goodies (more on that later) as well as free promotion on their social media channels and website.

We decided it would be good fun to get involved, and designed a display of our own. The Booker Prize celebrates a diverse range of literature and brings interesting new literary fiction to the forefront, hopefully making such books feel more accessible. With that in mind, the idea behind the display was to encourage our customers to engage with the shortlist via an interactive vote, placing a button in a jar corresponding to their chosen book. It was a real success - with ‘If I Survive You’ being voted as our ultimate winner – and sparked some great conversations in store.

What’s more, the Booker Prize liked our idea and we were chosen as one of the six winners! It was a real honour to be chosen, and we were all super excited. You can read more about the Indie Spotlight competition on the Booker Prize website here. It also means we got some of those goodies I mentioned. You can now buy signed copies of the real Booker Prize winner, Prophet Song, and get a free snazzy Booker Prize Tote bag with each Booker Prize book purchased in store.

Speaking of Prophet Song, if you’re curious about the newest Booker Prize Winner, you can find my review of the book below.

Prophet Song

On Sunday 26th November, Paul Lynch was awarded the Booker Prize for his stunning novel Prophet Song. In his acceptance speech, he stated that, “this was not an easy book to write […] though I had to write the book anyway. We do not have a choice in such matters.” I can confirm that it is not an easy book to read either, but well worth doing so. Heartbreakingly brutal, tragically infuriating and raw in its emotion, Prophet Song follows a family caught in a collapsing society.  Ireland has found itself in the grips of a government gradually turning toward tyranny, and Eilish - the family’s matriarch – can only watch as her world begins to fall apart, starting with the state abduction of her Trade Unionist husband.

During the Booker Prize Livestream, actor Caitriona Balfe described the book as feeling like a panic attack, and I can only agree with her assessment. We watch as a normal, functioning and fundamentally happy family is destroyed by political unrest and division. Gradually, life as they knew it crumbles to dust.

Although Lynch’s style can be difficult to settle into at first, with his refusal to use speech marks and by allowing his sentences to run on and on into big chunks, the effect it achieves contributes to the sense of unknowable confusion and disorientation found in such instances of war. After all, conflict is chaotic, it is unsettling and it is impossible to ever fully understand.

Once you’ve found your feet, however, you can really appreciate Lynch’s prose, particularly in the moments where he offers lovely, haunting yet brilliant descriptions of Eilish’s surroundings and reality, or perhaps pauses a moment to mediate on a thought or idea. Eilish’s voice itself is honest and bleak; she says, does and thinks things which I imagine many of us would in her position. I found her to be frustrating at times; I wanted to shake her, urge her into action and get her to leave before it’s too late. But in the end, she’s rooted to her home – like so many of us are – and you can understand why leaving is not as simple as packing a bag.

“She can see that the world does not end, that it is a vanity to think the world will end during your lifetime in some sudden event, that what ends is your life and only your life, that what is sung by the prophets is but the same song sung across time […] the world is always ending over and over again in one place but not another and that the end of the world is always a local event, it comes to your country and visits your town and knocks on the door of your house and becomes to others but some distant warning, a brief report on the news, an echo of events that has passed into folklore” (Lynch, Prophet Song, page 304)

Moments in this novel made my blood run cold. It’s devastating, depressing, wrecking, powerful, raw and frighteningly real. In many ways, it reminded me of Booker Prize darling (and one of my all-time favourite books) The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Not only is Lynch’s storytelling similarly addictive and compelling, his work holds a similar poignancy: a dystopia which reflects so clearly back onto current global events.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Prophet Song garners the same cultural resonance as Handmaids Tale and other similar political dystopias have.

While not a happy read, Prophet Song is a powerfully important one. It highlights how quickly and easily power can be grabbed, usurped and corrupted, and how fast life can careen off course. With this in mind, Prophet Song becomes particularly important for our current moment, and the things we’re seeing on our own TV screens right now: divided countries, violent devastation and suffering civilians.  Lynch’s story, then, is ultimately asking for, searching for, probing for, human empathy. At the centre of any conflict, there are families just like Eilish’s whose lives are crumbling around them, leaving them with no other choice than to leave their home, to make the impossibly difficult decision to uproot everything they know and look for escape. Lynch also reminds us that it may not be you this time – it might never be – but horrors are happening somewhere, to someone, every day.