Samuel and Isaiah, two enslaved men on a plantation in the Deep South, find refuge in each other until an enslaved preacher causes a rift in their community by declaring their bond sinful. Alternating perspectives between slaves on the plantation, the plantation owners, and the members of an African village whose serenity is destroyed when they’re taken as slaves, this is an ambitious, haunting tale of love and brutality.
I was blown away by the beautiful writing in this book. Though the story itself was at times horrific, the lyrical language was dazzling. Karen Chilton, the narrator of the audiobook said, “Robert’s writing is so lush, so elegant, so lyrical- every sentence is a song.” I completely agree. In particular, the descriptions of the love between Sam and Isaiah and the way that Jones transformed the barn in the evening into this secret, safe place for the two of them was heart wrenchingly beautiful. While many scenes are hard to read, each scene and character is vividly realized.
The scope of the book is quite wide, but the centering of the plantation, named Empty by the slaves, helped to maintain a clear narrative. And, each character’s perspective elicited a strong reaction in me. I fell in love with Isaiah, Maggie, and Sarah, each of whom showed both strength and softness throughout the story. I seethed with fury during the chapters narrated by the plantation owners and overseer, Paul, Ruth, Timothy, and James. In addition, I felt a true anger towards Amos, the slave who poisoned the community against Sam and Isaiah and led the story towards a tragic conclusion.
The book begins at a leisurely pace, but carefully builds the tension towards a truly explosive conclusion. It’s atmospheric, intricately plotted, and conveys powerful truths in spare, lyrical prose. A gorgeous, necessary read.
To end, I’ll share a favorite quote: “Harder, however, and even more frightening was the truth: there was no such thing as monsters. Every travesty that had ever been committed had been committed by plain people and every person had it in them, that fetching bejeweled thing just beneath the breast that could be removed at will and smashed over another’s head before it was returned to its beating place” (353).
Have you read The Prophets? Let me know what you thought in the comments!