Set on a plantation in Mississippi, The Prophets takes us inside the experience of its slaves. He gives that experience all its complexity, its mix of memory and mourning, daily dread, a faint communal remembrance of a distant and lost way of life, response to the landscape, and deep but complicated loyalties to one other, loyalties that are tested by the need for survival among pitiless white masters. At the center of these tensions are a pair of slaves, Samuel and Isaiah, who stay a bit apart from the others. They love each other fiercely but are very different. In keeping with the Biblical allusion in the title, Jones has forged a language with Biblical cadences but capable of precise emotional nuance. And those Biblical references carry traces of cruel irony, testimony to how the slaves’ own culture was eradicated in favor of a Christianity that licensed wholesale brutality.
The book is sometimes excruciating, but at the same time wondrously beautiful and soul-expanding. It would be hard not to be changed by reading it. One of the important books of the last few years.