#BookReview The Prophets by Robert Jones, Jr.

The ProphetsAbout the Book

The Halifax plantation is known as Empty by the slaves who work it under the pitiless gaze of its overseers and its owner, Massa Paul. Two young enslaved men, Samuel and Isaiah dwell among the animals they keep in the barn, helping out in the fields when their day is done. But the barn is their haven, a space of radiance and love – away from the blistering sun and the cruelty of the toubabs – where they can be alone together.

But, Amos – a fellow slave – has begun to direct suspicion towards the two men and their refusal to bend. Their flickering glances, unspoken words and wilful intention, revealing a truth that threatens to rock the stability of the plantation. And preaching the words of Massa Paul’s gospel, he betrays them.

The culminating pages of The Prophets summon a choral voice of those who have suffered in silence, with blistering humanity, as the day of reckoning arrives at the Halifax plantation.

Format: Hardback (400 pages)          Publisher: Quercus
Publication date: 21st January 2021 Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

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My Review

According to the blurb, ‘Love, in all its permutations, is the discovery at the heart of The Prophets‘. There certainly is love in the book, particularly between Isaiah and Samuel, but there’s also a hell of a lot of hate, as well as obscene cruelty and racial prejudice. The author does not hold back in describing the dreadful treatment meted out to the slaves on the Halifax plantation and the suffering they endure on a daily basis. One of the most shocking aspects for me was the way in which the male slaves are treated akin to stud animals, forced to inseminate female slaves in order to create a production line as it were of future slaves.

The book is told from multiple points of view, including individual slaves, such as Maggie, Essie and Puah, and members of the Halifax household. Interspersed with these is the origin story of an African tribe in which the king is a woman and her wives are men, gender identity being one of the themes of the book. Another narrative strand recounts in detail the squalid scenes aboard a ship bringing enslaved people from Africa, an experience so horrific that many would prefer to drown themselves.

The slaves on the Halifax plantation have literally nothing, except the bare minimum of food and shelter needed to keep them alive and be productive workers. They don’t even possess their own birth names having been given new names, invariably biblical, by plantation owner Paul Halifax. Paul’s excessive religious zeal and his twisted notion that he is doing God’s will is one of the most disturbing aspects of the book.

All the characters in the book seem drawn in different ways to Isaiah and Samuel whether that’s out of curiosity, understanding, desire or opportunism. The book also illustrates the various strategies for survival the slaves adopt, such as Be Auntie’s submission, Puah’s attempts to remain unnoticed or Maggie’s hidden revenge. None of these work and the penultimate chapter of the book – Exodus – is a story of revenge, death and destruction.

Although I could appreciate the quality of the writing, I felt I couldn’t quite do the book justice, if that doesn’t sound weird. I was left with the sense there were themes I was missing because of my lack of familiarity with the biblical references. For example, the significance of the books of the Old Testament that form the titles of each chapter. I found some of the book’s highly expressive language and imagery confusing and I’ll freely admit that the last chapter completely lost me. I know there is a good and important story here; I just regret that others have found it easier to navigate and assimilate than I did.

I received a proof copy courtesy of Quercus.

In three words: Powerful, intense, eloquent

Try something similar: The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris

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Robert-Jones-Jr.-c-Alberto-Vargas-7-1About 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 been featured in The New York TimesEssenceGawker, and The Grio. He is the creator of the social justice social media community, Son of Baldwin, which can be found on Facebook, Google Plus, Instagram, Medium, Tumblr, and Twitter. He is also currently working on his second novel. (Photo/bio credit: Publisher author page)

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2 thoughts on “#BookReview The Prophets by Robert Jones, Jr.

  1. Nice review, and I understand what you mean about not knowing if you can do the book justice. I must read it more than once to even begin to catch everything within this multi-dimensional tale of violence, brutality, and love. I’ve been reading multiple books, fictional and non-fictional, by black authors in attempt to understand and as a consequence have been dealing with thoughts and emotions of all sorts from frustration to anger to tears and back again. I want to hug a black person, but they would think me a fool. Ah well.


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