This ambitious debut about gay love on a slave plantation has all the right ingredients: a memorable cast of characters, a riveting plot with a touching love story, evocative prose. But the writing slips at times into self-indulgence and could have benefited from an editor’s deft hand.
The Prophets tells of hot-tempered Samuel and sweet Isaiah, enslaved young men on a Mississippi plantation. The pair work and sleep in the barn, tending to the animals and their clandestine love. When the plantation owner’s son discovers their secret, the consequences are devastating.
Jones weaves the tale skillfully, alternating points of view among Black, white, and mixed-race voices, and building the action to a stunning climax. But his portrayal of Christianity as hypocritical and spiritually bankrupt is not new; using magical realism to imbue certain slaves with supernatural powers, while entertaining, also feels redundant. He overwrites at times, descending into preachiness – admittedly, it’s a sermon that white readers need to hear – and his ending drags as he tries, then tries again, to wrap it up.
The reader willing to overlook these minor flaws and keep reading, however, will be amply rewarded with many wonderful turns of phrase. The prose ascends, at times, to poetry.
“…He always smelled like a coming rain, the kind that would make you lift your head in anticipation. Open your mouth and wait. Because of that, Samuel could roam free in those meanwhiles, touch the veins of leaves, build pillows out of moss, drink dew from the palms of his hands. This, too, was a kind of freedom, for it sought to nourish rather than make the act of living a crime. Who built this?”
Robert Jones, Jr. did, and I look forward to seeing what he’ll build next.