Isaiah and Samuel are lovers. The barn is their home on the Halifax plantation, known as Empty by the slaves who work it. It’s the one place they can go to be alone together, away from prying eyes. it becomes a place of refuge and space of radiance where their love can flourish, blurring the horrors of the vicious world around them. The others know that there are many ways to shelter one’s self from the most evil regimes, and keeping the community’s tender secrets is one of them.
But their fellow slave Amos has begun to curry favour by preaching the master’s gospel on the plantation. In his sermons, he begins to direct suspicion towards the two men: could their flickering glances and unspoken words be, after all, sinful? Could their love threaten the plantation’s tense harmony?
The Prophets, where to even start? Well, huge thanks to Ana at Quercus for sending me this proof copy of the book by Robert Jones Jr. Eloquently written, eye opening and brutal, truthfully I don’t really know where to start with my review but I will try my best.
Set on a huge plantation Samuel and Isaiah are slaves, they live and work together in the barn, both have been there since childhood, meeting on Isaiah’s arrival and they are in love. Central to this character driven story we meet a huge cast, including other slaves, the master, his staff and family.
Quietly content in each others company, their lives and love should offend no one but people have an opinon, ranging from seeing the positive in an otherwise desolate situation to something much more sinister. The two young men are hard workers and live quietly, noted for not producing offspring but otherwise unexceptional. Amos, another slave sees a way to elevate his own status and protect his wife from rape and impregnation by the ‘master’ but at a cost to Samuel and Isaiah.
This hard hitting book offers a tangible account of slavery, the strength of the characters and the style of writing serve to absorb the reader into the story, offering an almost visual account. Told from multiple perspectives the characters are distinct but their stories are told in relation to Samuel and Isaiah. Intersperesed throughout the story is the tale of the ancestors, taken into slavery by the white man who came and judged their customs and practices imposing limits and negatives on aspects of humanity, framing identity as male or female and promoting heterosexuality as the ‘correct’ way and a patriarchal structure as the way things should be.
An interesting study of power in relation to Amos, who saw a way to increase his own power and standing, which he took (in some ways understandably) but the balance of power shifts and for him to gain he had to weaken elsewhere and the sexual practices of two male slaves fitted well with his adoption of Christian preachings.
The legacy of systemic abuse and harm within an inequal system is highlighted and the ‘rising up’ of the suppressed though force because power never seems to be relinquished voluntarily. We see these issues still now and this book offers another opportunity for people to self reflect and better understand the structures we live in, not slavery no, but with many oppressed and disadvantaged this book should serve to continue that conversation, giving voice to stories that have long been silent and challenging prevalent ideas that remain in place today.
There was lots to think about here, challenging many stereotypes around gender, race and sexuality. Depicting rape and violence towards the slaves on the plantation and shock among the ancestors at the ignorance of the white arrivals, welcomed with caution with devastating consequences.
The starkest book so far that I have read on this subject and the broadest in terms of its themes. The writing is almost poetic at times, required concentration and at times I read over what was written several times, but the strong story shouts to be heard. A hard but important read that deserves time and attention and is nothing short of magnificient. In this first week of January this mammoth title from Riverrun Books is one I expect to hear lots about throughtout the year, not least as a nominee on the 2021 prize lists.
About the Author
Robert Jones, Jr is a writer from Brooklyn, N.Y. He earned both his B.F.A in creative writing and M.F.A in fiction from Brooklyn College. His work has featured in The New York Times, Essence, Gawker, and The Grio. He is the creator of the social justice media community, Son of Baldwin. He is currently working on his second novel.