Debut novelist Robert Jones, Jr. crafts a new kind of epic in The Prophets, a queer love story set against a brutal historical backdrop.

By David Canfield
December 18, 2020 at 01:10 PM EST
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Credit: Penguin

If, as Robert Jones, Jr. writes, “There was no such thing as monsters,” what to make of his first novel, a grand achievement that pits love against cruelty and spares no detail in its brutal telling of the American past? That’s the central tension that cuts through The Prophets, which sets a tender queer romance on a harrowing plantation stage, tracking the action in lyrical, sensual detail.

Ultimately, it may be less concerned with the historical than the biblical: see its title, or the names of its main characters, Samuel and Isaiah, or the conflicts that come to define their story. The two Black teens live in the antebellum South as slaves, skirting the numbing terrors of their master and navigating the nuances of their community. They fall in love. They bring each other joy and comfort. And their bond ripples through the lives of those around them, from Essie, a vividly drawn young woman whose fate turns tragic, to Amos, an older slave whose bitterness and jealousy imperil our heroes.

Jones’ exacting depiction of slavery makes for, at times, excruciating reading — his focus on abuse is unyielding. Yet his prose feels powered by a softer emotional intensity. Even the tears of the most disingenuous of masters “could wear down stone,” he writes; atrocities across humanity “had been committed by plain people, and every person had it in them.” Indeed, while The Prophets’ dreamy realism recalls the work of Toni Morrison and Esi Edugyan, its penetrating focus on social dynamics stands out more singularly. Known as the founder of the “Son of Baldwin” social justice blog, Jones does its namesake quite proud with this novel — a Black story and a gay story, certainly, but one that reaches far and wide in its interrogation of trauma, connection, and coexistence. A–

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