Book Review: The Prophets

Sometimes you pick up a book, and you just KNOW it will leave a mark on you, some things are just seamless and this book is one of them. Though chosen because I am expanding my exploration of books from Black authors, I was pleasantly surprised by the subject matter and the wonder that this book offered. I was a bit reticent as it’s a book on slavery and we know those have major emotional moments, so I was a bit hesitant to dive into a book I knew I wouldn’t be able to shake off so easily. But! Let me tell you!!! This week on the blog, we share our thoughts on Robert Jones, Jr.’s The Prophets. Read on…

Victors gave themselves the right to rename murder “triumph” and adorn themselves with jewelry made from the bones of the vanquished.

Synopsis:

Set on a plantation nicknamed Empty, for the feeling it imparts on its inhabitants, this book breaks down into different chapters named after biblical characters and the names of some of the slaves. This book follows a handful of slaves, and is based around the secret, but not so secret romance between two male slaves, Samuel & Isaiah. Each chapter is dedicated to a different character/voice, giving you a background on their internal dialogue/turmoil, but also where they were in relation to specific incidents in the book and their proximity to Samuel & Isaiah.

Characters:

Samuel: More distant/ standoffish than Isaiah, he keeps his emotions bottled up and only Isaiah is able to peel back the layers.
Isaiah: The shier, softer one out of the two, he is more trusting and naive than Samuel
Maggie: Works in the big house where Paul & Ruth live, where she cooks and cleans for them. She has a severe hip injury which gives her a limp, she also knows the ways of the ancestors and is connected to the spirit world.
Amos: Tries to win Paul’s favour, by requesting to be taught about Christianity and begins attempting to convert fellow slaves
Essie: Amos’ wife and friends with Samuel
Puah: A young girl who is desperately in love with Samuel, she keeps to herself and in some ways goes somewhat unseen on Empty, which is just how she likes it
Be Auntie: Puah’s adoptive mother
“Tabouab”: the name they call white people
Paul: The Slave master, owner of the plantation, which is named after his mother, Elizabeth.
Ruth: Paul’s wife, she is free spirited and unhappy with her life on Empty
Timothy: Paul & Ruth’s only surviving child, he is an artist and doesn’t want to follow in the family business of running Empty.
James: Paul’s cousin, an overseer

Break It Down

Every once in a while, you will come across an author who is literally blessed with the talent of penmanship. The ability to paint a scene with layers, colour, vibrancy and texture, all from the perfect recipe of mixing the right words together. It’s beyond beautiful- it’s almost romantic. Robert Jones Jr is that person. Though this is his first published work, he is clearly gifted and I genuinely look forward to reading more from him. This, is his calling. There is a scene where Ruth, the slave master’s wife, goes on a zoned out walk ( I am not sure if mental ill health is at play, it doesn’t explicitly say so ) and ends up at the barn where Samuel and Isaiah “live”; in her apparent daze/slip from reality, she attempts to force one of them to sleep with her, but when he doesn’t get aroused she feels insulted and proceeds to run back to her husband and accuses them of being the aggressors. As shocking, disturbing and odd this behaviour is, I found myself so taken in by the words, that at first I wasn’t really sure what I was reading. This is due to the fact that the imagery Robert Jones Jr paints of Samuel and Isaiah’s punishment, which is quite visually gruesome- but the way he sets the scene is almost cinematic. He doesn’t explain it like the typical books based on slavery, but it doesn’t make it any less impactful- it’s almost more so because of just how disgustingly they’re being treated but the scene is set so differently it impacts more deeply. From the little details of the young men’s feet slipping in the wet mud, to their effort to breathe as they are forcibly chained to a broken carriage, naked and made to drag it around through the plantation while being whipped, to them focusing on the little details of the flowers and nature around them as they are being dehumanized. Their mental ability to recognize that the person they love the most in the world is right next to them and if this is to be their last breath, then at least they have taken it together…just heartbreaking.

The scars lined them the same way bark lined trees. But those weren’t the ones that streaked the mind, squeezed the spirit, and left you standing outside in the rain, naked as birth, demanding that the drops stop touching you.

Nicknamed The Two Of Them, because they never seem to be apart and everyone realizes that they are not only much more efficient together, but the author references that fact that they seem to “glow” when they are in each other’s proximity. Everything about them is angelic to some definition, their physique, their quiet strength, their efficiency. Because they were such hard workers, kept to themselves and did the work of many people, this allowed them a kind of “shield” from the slave master’s wrath. This begins to chip away though, when neither of them are able to impregnate any of the women they are forced to have “stock” with in order to create the “perfect slave”. It’s interesting that the slaves all knew Samuel and Isaiah were a couple and most of them didn’t have any issue with it as they recognized that everyone needed someone and they could feel their connection. But when Amos catches wind of this, he feels like they aren’t pulling their weight when it comes to birthing more slave children, so he takes matters into his own hands and attempt to “befriend” Paul under the guise of spreading the word of God to the slaves. This is supposed to gain Essie, Amos’s wife, a pass when it comes to Paul and his advances, but it begins the undoing of Samuel and Isaiah. In hindsight, I wondered if there was some sort of suggestion that one of them was outer worldly, because there were a few chapters where the narrator appears to be of the spirit world. I wondered if either Samuel or Isaiah were an angel or a spiritual being who wanted to be human, it had a lot of those vibes.

Reluctantly, he swept the evidence of their bliss back into a neat pile, nearer to where their misery was already neatly stacked. All of it to be sustenance for beasts anyway.

This book is about much more than the two main characters, the other characters add to the overall image of Empty, the variety of stories, struggles and coping mechanisms they employ to simply get through their day. The parts of them they need to shut off in order to survive- it all impacts their decisions on the penultimate day in the book. After Timothy decides he wants to begin painting Isaiah and eventually coerces him into having sex with him Samuel is not only hurt, but understands just how trapped they really are. But this becomes much more heightened when he is then summoned by Timothy. The Two of Them, decide they have to run away because if not- it will lead to their ultimate deaths. Samuel accepts Timothy’s call, but he takes matters into his own hands and murders Timothy instead. Paul, witnesses the last of the attack and eventually beats and lynches Samuel. The lynching begins a riot where the slaves on Empty decide to revolt. Quite literally all hell breaks loose. Maggie stabs Paul because of the many ways he’s mistreated her, in the drama you find out Maggie’s retaliation is also due to the fact that Samuel is her biological son, which Samuel never knew. Maggie also takes the opportunity to curse and attack James who is the reason she has a limp as he raped and attempted to drown her in the lake. Essie takes matters into her own hands and drowns the baby she is forced to have as Amos offered her body up as a bargaining chip with Paul. It literary all begins to unravel.

There are no lines. For everything is a circle, turning back on itself endlessly. This is not to make you dizzy, but to give you the chance to get it right the next time.

Some Book Club Questions

Q: Let’s now talk about Timothy’s “white saviour complex” where he seeks to exploit Isaiah and Samuel.
A: I didn’t feel a connection to Timothy’s character as I suppose you should, in the sense that he doesn’t appear to want to continue with his family’s legacy of enslaving people, but at the same time he chose a way to exploit them none the less and getting something sexual/selfish out of it instead. Knowing his position of power and his proximity to Paul, his father, the slave master, he knew he could leverage this power in order to use Samuel and Isaiah- all under the guise of being “one of the good guys” and making it seem like they both have a common enemy and that he would free them the second he got the opportunity. I never believed it.

Q: Why did Samuel kill Timothy?
A: I believe Samuel killed Timothy to avenge Isaiah, he understood that Isaiah would never be “strong enough” fight back and he understood that Isaiah was being exploited and used. The realization that they are merely bodies, but before that nothing touched Samuel and Isaiah’s bubble, they still had their unique connection and their intimacy and once that was taken away from them- I think that really triggered him to fight back, for him and for Isaiah.

Q: This starts the climax where everyone fends for themselves. It seems Isaiah is able to escape and sees Samuel before he dies. Do you think that Isaiah really did escape? Did he truly see Samuel or was it a figment of his imagination? Were you satisfied with the ending?
A: Overall, the ending left me with so many questions and the fact that it lead up to the night where chaos ensued and then to just finish like that I was left desperately wanting. The way I saw it, if Isaiah did see Samuel’s body being lynched, then he really couldn’t have gotten very far, which is a kind of let down, because I wanted him to escape. Maybe because of how deeply Samuel and Isaiah are connected, he was able to “experience”/witness his death from afar. I actually felt like Puah was the one who he reunited with in the forest, it’s the only thing that makes sense.

Q: What do you think the title means in relation to this story?
A: I feel it’s quite obvious that The Prophets are each character in the book. Each one of them have a story and each have a lesson or are showing their struggle. There is a link with their biblical names and typically each chapter in the Bible is about a prophet of sorts and I believe this is why Robert Jones Jr. named the book. It’s almost poetic and once you read it- it just makes sense.

Would I Recommend?

THIS BOOK NEEDS TO BE READ! It’s a wonderful, wonderful work of fiction and I don’t do this often, but I personally feel like I need to re-read it, because I am sure there are metaphors and nuances I missed. It’s so well written that it’s hidden. I didn’t even get to cover the flashbacks to the tribes and it’s significance to the “present” in the book or the link to the spirit world or the Biblical references and how each chapter and characters are Biblical in nature! It’s just so layered!!!

The RnR Rating:

5 out of 5, I wrote this rating when I was approximately 80 pages, in- sometimes you can just tell when a book will be THAT good.