I was looking forward to reading this. It is an extraordinary debut novel from gay black American author Robert Jones which could very well become a contender for the twenty-first century Great American novel.
It is a historical work set in the Halifax family’s cotton plantation in Vicksburg, Mississippi and over the years the slave plantation is a location I have visited quite a few times in fiction but I don’t think that many have made so much of an impression upon me as this.
In a barn live and work two teenagers, Samuel and Isaiah, who have become lovers. Set apart from both the rest of the slaves and the members of the white household but observed by both they are true outsiders. The response to these boys searching for happiness in such a grim existence is commented on by other characters, often in sections that relate to Books of the Bible. They are also observed by a chorus of ancestral voices who powerfully and poetically comment on proceedings.
The boys, unbeknown to them, have been part of an economic experiment by the white master, Paul Halifax, who has put them in an environment of hard physical work away from the cotton-picking to make studs of them, to provide him with a strong stock of future slaves. The problem is, the boys are only interested in one another. Along comes another slave Amos, granted rights of preaching who uses his sermons to turn the slaves against the boys known to all as “The Two Of Them”. Others in the plantation cannot comprehend what Amos is against thinking that happiness should be taken wherever it is possible to find it. Samuel and Isaiah’s combustible situation is exacerbated by the sexually frustrated white mistress and her son returned from a “liberal” education up North.
The plot, in its bare bones here, seems a tad melodramatic, but oh my, how well Jones brings it alive, developing characters quickly and effectively and by having these two young men at the centre of a love story which feels bound to be ultimately tragic.
Amongst this Jones also superbly intersperses tales from previous generations- of the plantation’s ancestors, of plunder, of slave ships encompassing the black American history to this point into one superb novel.
When reading this it was a comment I had seen by Marlon James which kept coming to mind. He said of this book; “The Prophets shakes right down to the bone what the American novel should do, and can do. That shuffling sound you hear is Morrison, Baldwin and Angelou whooping and hollering both in pride and wonder.”
What a marvellous thing to say about another author’s book but it is so appropriate. And this is a debut novel! At the end Robert Jones Jnr acknowledges hundreds of people by name, those black writers, educators, public figures, musicians, performers, friends who have inspired him, an awe-inspiring roll-call which might have seemed over the top if Jones did not have the goods to deliver. With this enthralling, heart-breaking, poetic, challenging, very accessible yet difficult novel he certainly has. The only thing I am not totally on board with is the cover which has a self-published self-help book vibe about it but certainly do not judge this by that. It is possible that I may have already read my Book of The Year.
The Prophets was published by Quercus in the UK in hardback on 5th January 2021. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.