100 Essential Books – The Prophets – Robert Jones Jnr (Quercus 2021)

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.

Memorial – Bryan Washington (Atlantic 2021)

And here it is, nice and early this year, my first five star read of 2021.  To be honest I am not all that surprised I loved this book.  I highlighted it as one of the books I wanted to read this year and it’s a book by an author whose collection of short stories “Lot” won the Dylan Thomas Prize and which I rated four stars, acknowledging the potential.

This debut novel is even better.  It is the story of a male couple, Benson, who is black and Mike of Japanese heritage living in Houston.  Their relationship is somewhat rocky and not helped by Mike’s mother arriving from Tokyo for an extended stay on the same day Mike flies to Osaka to connect with the dying father who had deserted the family.  We get two first-person narratives from Benson, sandwiched between is Mike’s experiences in Japan.

Benson is left to forge a relationship with a woman he has never met as they bond over cooking, attempting to find common ground as they share the apartment whilst Mike helps out at his father’s bar, which is his potential inheritance.  The couple’s relationship is tested.

I was drawn in by these characters and their families.  I found children’s day-care worker Benson was especially vividly drawn, Mike seems more elusive which makes some of his actions questionable (including the desertion of his mother which is central to the plot).  It is less spikey than the short-story collection and provoked a real emotional response from me.  It feels modern, is well-written and has provided an early reading highlight for 2021.

Memorial is published in hardback by Atlantic Books in January 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Madam – Phoebe Wynne (Quercus 2021)

Here is advance notification of a title scheduled to appear in February 2021,  a debut novel set largely in the early 1990s.  Twenty-six year old Classics teacher Rose is offered a job at a prestigious private girls’ school in coastal North East Scotland.  Caldonbrae is offering a Head of Department job and more money which will enable continued care for her mother in a residential home.  It doesn’t take Rose that long to realise the school is not all that it seems.

This modern Gothic tinged tale is good at establishing atmosphere especially at the beginning when Rose becomes aware that she is an outsider to events going on around her in a way which felt reminiscent of horror classic “Rosemary’s Baby”.  The school is keeping secrets from her and she is being manipulated by them but just how dark are these secrets? 

It takes the best part of a school year for Rose to fully cotton on to what is happening and this gives it the feel of a modern-day school-based slant on “Rebecca”.  Rose struggles to keep up normality, we find out much about the content of the curriculum and classic and mythological women are introduced to the students with Rose increasingly using these as teaching aids to help convey her concerns to the extraordinarily educationally passive girls.

I do think the book is a little too long, a little tweaking would have intensified the atmosphere, I think we linger a little too long in the classrooms and this slow build up isn’t quite justified by the final revelations and the working out of the plot’s climax.  Nevertheless, it is very readable and I enjoyed the feminist slant to the modern gothic novel.  It also has the potential to make a very good film/tv adaptation.

Madam is scheduled to be published by Quercus on 18th February 2021.