Published in The Observer January 4, 2021
In a letter to the reader at the start of Robert Jones Jr’s debut novel, he says he was compelled to write the book after hearing voices insisting he ask the question “Did Black queer people exist in the distant past?” and then share the answer: of course they did.
Those two names come up repeatedly in advance publicity for The Prophets: the blurb hypes hard that Jones possesses a similar lyricism to those literary giants in his love story between two enslaved men, Isaiah and Samuel, on a plantation in Mississippi.
The Prophets is indeed an outstanding novel, delivering tender, close-up intimacy, but also a great sweep of history. The novel names chapters after books of the Bible, but what really frames it are poetic sections written in the mysterious, eternal voices of seven ancestors, speaking out from the darkness. And while the bulk of the narrative takes place on the plantation, told from multiple characters’ perspectives, it is also interwoven with scenes set within a matriarchal African tribe. Their brutal enslavement and transportation to America grimly follows.
This novel is – necessarily – not an easy read. Jones’s writing style is lyrical, but he doesn’t shy away from the gut-churning horrors of slavery. He writes that The Prophets is perhaps more “a witnessing” than a book. It certainly asks that the reader bear witness to things they might rather turn away from – but it is a fine piece of fiction, too.
Jones has a knack for a proverb-like turn of phrase (grief is “wet in the eyes, trapped on the tongue, broken in the palms”), and his descriptions have a rich, distinctive vividness: backs are “juicy with the marks left by whips and disapproving glances”; wildflowers burst in shades of blue “perfect enough to hurt feelings”. The same layered detailing is applied to the characters’ emotional and spiritual lives – memories and magic, visions and voices thicken their experiences, and make his storytelling ripe and heady.
At times, this can be overdone. There are too many convoluted metaphors tangled in their own imagery. Its lustrousness is his writing’s great strength, but there are still places where less would be more.
Jones is also ambitious in the scope of his storytelling – and he delivers a lavish polyphony of conflicting fears and desires, slipping between the perspectives of a large cast of characters. Different instances of same-sex love thread throughout The Prophets, but it is the relationship between Samuel and Isaiah that gives the book its heartbeat, and a little softness amid all the hardship.
There are no easy platitudes about how love triumphs over suffering here, however; suffering suffuses every page. Even in moments of sweetness, there’s also a glowering, looming dread. What is remarkable, Jones suggests, is that humans do still love, even when the most terrifying threats hang over them. Even when knowing their oppressors will never allow them a happy ending.