The Prophets

In the past year or so, several books have been compared to the masterworks of Toni Morrison. I’ve read at least two of them–The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Conjure Women by Afia Atakora–and it’s been easy enough to see where the comparisons come from–both have been novels about enslaved people and the toll that slavery exacts upon the humanity of oppressors and oppressed–but none of those books has been as deserving of the accolade as Robert Jones Jr.’s The Prophets.

The novel deals with the love between two enslaved men on a Mississippi plantation in the late 1700s or early 1800s (no clearer assessment can be made regarding the time period; it seems likely that it’s before Britain ceases to participate in the transatlantic slave trade, since the master’s long-lost cousin, now an overseer on the plantation, works his passage over from England as a deckhand on a slave ship.) These two young men, Isaiah and Samuel, share a love that every slave on the plantation recognizes as nourishing; it seems to light them up from the inside, and their movement through the world is evidence of their love’s power. What it renders difficult, however, is the forced breeding programme run by the plantation’s owner, Paul. When one of the boys not only refuses to rape a fellow slave woman but is actually physically unable to, Paul turns to another slave, Amos, who wants to preach. Giving Amos the power of literacy via the Bible and the license to talk about Jesus on Sunday mornings, Paul hopes to convert his whole slave population to Christianity, foment hatred of Isaiah and Samuel as sodomites, and keep potential rebellion unfulfilled by dangling the hope of eternal heavenly reward for patient earthly suffering.

One of the most interesting things about The Prophets is its integration of African religious and spiritual practices into the lives of its characters. Because it’s set at a point in history when Christianity has not yet become a default worldview for Black enslaved people living in America, Jones can explore blood memory, which lives in many of the enslaved women whose perspectives litter the book. (Almost every named character gets a point-of-view chapter; it’s fortunate that Jones generally leaves each perspective behind him once he’s used it, or things would get unwieldy. However, the skill with which he inhabits the subtle distinctions of each character’s thoughts and feelings about their position in the world makes such a proliferation feel less superfluous than it usually does.) Maggie is the gatekeeper of blood memory on the plantation (which, though named for Paul’s mother Elizabeth, is known by a more colloquial, and more telling, name: Empty). She brings other women together to perform healing rituals with herbs and recitation when Isaiah and Samuel are whipped. She sees shadows move. She feels the presence of ancestors. She knows there were other ways. Some of the other women also have this ability: in particular, Puah, a teenage girl in fruitless love with Samuel, and Sarah, a woman who once loved another woman as Isaiah and Samuel love each other.

Perhaps the aspect of traditional religion as Jones portrays it that will surprise the greatest number of readers is its acceptance of queer sexualities. Intercut chapters show life in a pre-slavery Kosongo village ruled over by a female king, Akusa. Akusa has six wives, some of whom are women and some of whom are men. There are more than two possibilities, anyway: you can be woman, man, free, or all. When Akusa’s village first encounters a white person, a “skinless” Portuguese missionary named Brother Gabriel brought to them by an emissary from a neighbouring village that has turned quisling, he is invited to participate in a feast celebrating the marriage of two warriors, Kosii and Elewa. His inability to understand the nature of the celebration is grounded in the fact that they are both men. To King Akusa, Gabriel’s incomprehension is proof of idiocy:

“Two men?” These colorless people had the strangest system of grouping things together by what they did not understand rather than by what they did. He could see bodies, but it was clear that he could not see spirits. […]

“Impossible,” she said with a laugh. “They are bonded. Do you not see?”

“I think your people would benefit from our religion,” Brother Gabriel said.

The Prophets, Robert Jones Jr., p. 208

This has not quite been destroyed by the time Isaiah and Samuel are living in Empty. Amos, the aspiring preacher, himself thinks of a slave he knew named Henry who would answer only to Emma, and is able to absorb this: Henry/Emma is clearly a woman inside. Jones’s thesis is very clear: the damage wrought on cultures that functioned perfectly, indeed better than contemporaneous white culture did, was perpetrated not merely with guns and shackles, but with Bibles.

There are also interlaced chapters in which the voices of the ancestors speak. Unattributed, lyrical, often contradictory and confusing, impossible to pin down, these polylogues are simultaneously the most “difficult” aspect of The Prophets and the aspect that elevates it to greatness. Jones is not content to tell a simple historical story of love and struggle and failure and death. The ancestors’ voices are what make that struggle both a source of rage and a source of pride. I am not Black and have (as far as I know) no Black ancestry, and these sections were not written for me, but I can see in them the harnessed artistic expression of fury and dignity, of people whose past, present and future is channeled through shared memory and tradition. If I’m waxing unbecomingly lyrical myself here, it’s because the power of these sections renders commentary somewhat presumptuous. Jones taps into a voice that speaks down generations, through centuries. The shivers that he’s able to raise on the back of the reader’s neck with this voice are the clearest indication that his book truly does approach Morrisonian heights.


The Prophets was published by riverrun on 5 January, 2021.

2021 Resolutions, reading and otherwise

It’s the reading resolutions we’re all always so interested in, isn’t it? Which is fair enough, and I have a few of those. They tie into a more general purpose for 2021, though, which can be boiled down to: be more intentional. Spend my time more intentionally. Cook, eat, maintain contact with friends, choose and read books, write my own work, develop my career, with a certain level of intentionality, which 2020 seemed to steal from me. I don’t want to drift, and I don’t want to run my engine frantically in place. I want to make choices.

With that in mind, my reading choices this year will be aligned along the following axes:

  1. Read better. Not more, exactly. I already know how many books I can read in a year while maintaining full-time employment; I top out at around 200 and I’m perfectly happy with that. What I’d like to do is cut down even more on the number of books I read out of a sense that they might be professionally useful to me, or otherwise out of un-joyful obligation. (Sometimes obligations are joyful!) I pick up so many titles because I imagine that many of my clients might enjoy a book but want to do some quality control first. It’s not a bad impulse, but it means I spend more of my reading time than I would like following other people’s whims, instead of my own deepest interests. Since I’m not paid for the time I spend reading, this imbalance seems worth addressing.
  2. Find more older books to enjoy. Everything you could describe as “a classic” that I read in 2020–including but not limited to Shirley, The Lonely Londoners, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, My Antonia, East Lynne–I enjoyed immensely. (Actually, not quite: I didn’t love Crime and Punishment or The Aeneid. Still worth it, though, just.) Most of the books I read that were mid-to recent-backlist were also excellent: Zami, A View of the Empire at Sunset, The Testament of Jessie Lamb, Air, and The Fifth Season, among many, many others, made big impressions. There’s so much I’m still missing.
  3. Chill the fuck out about the Goodreads Reading Challenge. I’m starting to wonder if I should stop even participating in this, since all it does is engage my competitive perfectionist side. This year I’ve deliberately set my target unprecedentedly low (75 books), so as to feel better when I overachieve. We’ll see if that psychological approach actually works or not. I spent a good fifteen minutes this evening angsting over the need to choose my next read quickly so my stats don’t drop, so I’m inclined to be pessimistic on this one, but I think choosing what to read next will always be fraught.
  4. Keep actively seeking out authors of colour and queer authors. Durrr. I might try and work a few more translations in here, and it’d be good to seek out and support more nonbinary writers, too.

Five things about Don Quixote

My first book of what is supposed to be the best year of all our lives (though so far, I’m not sure) is Don Quixote. In my edition (the Penguin Clothbound Classics one, above), it’s 982 pages long plus endnotes, and I remember trying to read it (in a different edition) at least twice before, becoming bored, and dropping it. Now, at last, I’ve conquered it, and as with a previous nearly-thousand-page-long book (The Last Chronicle of Barset), I’m not sure that a review or even an analytical essay is as useful as a few scattered comments and/or tips, if you’re thinking of scaling this mountain yourself.

  1. The translation matters. Not in the way that you might think, or the way which tends to trip me up with comparisons (“which one is The Best/the most faithful to the original language/the most faithful to the original sense/what should I even be looking for in a translation aaauugghhh helpppp”). Like War and Peace, Don Q has many translators, and the one that’s right for you will depend on what kind of reader you are, the context and background knowledge you bring to the book, etc. However, the translation I read is by John Sutherland, and I would recommend it highly, in large part because it’s one of the few translations that really contributes to a sense that…
  2. The book is funny. I really wasn’t sure about this at first, and I’m not sure Cervantes was either–it takes a while for the characters to become people, and for the humour to kick in. After Quixote’s “first sally” (initial adventure), however, it’s clear that Cervantes decides he’s interested in this delusional hidalgo and his coarse and obnoxious yet truth-telling squire, and from then on they start to develop a relationship and characteristics that form the basis of the book’s best humour. Sancho Panza, the squire, not only develops the habit of speaking in endless and often irrelevant proverbs, but also of a kind of reverse malapropism: Quixote mentions “the estimates of Ptolemy, the great cosmographer”, which Sancho dismisses as “the sexy butts and tomfoolery of a great pornographer”. The translation matters! In another, stuffier or older edition, that level of linguistic playfulness wouldn’t, I think, sound nearly so natural, modern, fresh or irreverent, and therefore wouldn’t be nearly as funny. Obviously there’s also the physical humour (Quixote is frequently tricked into uncomfortable, painful or embarrassing situations, often by women, and Sancho gets beaten up as a proxy for his master more times than you can count), which may be less hilarious to you; I didn’t find myself laughing out loud reading those scenes, although it’s possible they’re funnier read aloud. Which brings me to…
  3. The book may have been intended partly for oral transmission. There’s some evidence for this in the cliffhanger chapter endings and the way that the narrator discusses his storytelling strategy (which is what leads so many people to refer to it as a post-modern book avant la lettre; Cervantes’s narrative persona is extremely self-aware, and throughout the text, there are explicit signposts that it is a text). There’s a lot of repetition and rhetorical embroidery, which looks chunkily intimidating on a page but makes a good deal more sense if you think of someone reading it loud or half-performing the scene; it represents the natural rhetorical padding that humans give to spoken sentences. It also means you shouldn’t feel particularly bad skimming those bits. You can get the gist in the first and final few sentences of a page-long paragraph, and pick up the essentials in the middle, without committing your full attention to every single word–the text is clearly not designed for that level of scrutiny.
  4. Women, poor people and working people are interesting and well-represented here. Many of Don Q‘s past translators have assumed that his devotion to chivalry, although deriving from insanity, represents an aspirational ideal, like the holy fool, and have therefore interpreted him as an uncomplicated paragon of goodness and mercy who is genuinely beset by devils and malice. Sutherland approaches the text in a way that reveals Quixote’s madness as ridiculous, if also somewhat pitiable, and grounded in an old-fashioned paternalism that is repeatedly shown to be silly and impractical. Sancho Panza’s wife (initially referred to as Juana but always subsequently known as Teresa) is a sturdy, pragmatic farmer’s daughter who runs her family’s smallholding intelligently and is very reluctant to be drawn into her husband’s airy hopes of promotion and enhancement. The daughter and maidservant of the innkeeper during Quixote’s first adventure play numerous tricks on him, which are all enabled by his outmoded and deluded view of female innocence and susceptibility. A ruffian named Ginés appears twice in the book, once as a convict and once as the proprietor of a travelling ape and puppet show; both times his ingenuity and quick wit is presented with approbation, while Quixote’s credulousness in both situations leads to chaos and destruction. Women, working people and poor people are generally described with sympathy, and given complexity and agency. It’s a nice surprise.
  5. Don’t worry about the plot. There is one, sort of, eventually (it kicks in during the second half of Part II), but you could just as easily call that an extended episode, one of many. It’s an episodic book by nature, which would make it perfect for dipping in and out of over the course of a longer period of reading, maybe one or two chapters an evening. Mostly, Quixote ventures forth, meets someone or sees something which he grievously misinterprets as requiring his help or input, attempts to fulfill the conditions of knight-errantry, fails, and either chalks it up to the work of malicious enchanters or interprets his failure as a success anyway. Sancho has some kind of misadventure, complains about it, tries to fix his master up as best he can, asks for payment, is rebuffed, and they continue. It’s formulaic, of course, but that’s the point when you’re writing a satire of chivalric romance. And it means the reader need not worry too much about losing track of names or events. Characters do recur, but this is not a tightly-plotted novel by any means, so if you’re not following, don’t worry too much–just keep reading and see what happens.

Worth reading? For my money, definitely. It’s a serious investment of time, but it’s fun and doesn’t take itself too seriously (or, really, seriously at all), and it contains some bittersweet moments of sanity in the midst of complete madness. A joyful ride.

Readers Imbibing Peril, XV

I don’t often participate in reading challenges, having my own unpredictable and eclectic method of choosing my next read according to whim, necessity, and release date, but early to mid autumn is a season that really does seem to demand tailored reading. The R(eaders).I(mbibing).P(eril). Challenge is well suited to this, and in 2020 it’s easier than ever to play. Just read at least one book that could be qualified as mystery, suspense, Gothic, horror, supernatural, thriller, or dark fantasy, between 1 September and 31 October. Easy.

It’s not my absolute wheelhouse as far as genre goes, but I do like being a little creeped out, and have had some great reading experiences at this time of the year in the past, as the temperature drops and streetlamps become golden puddles of sanctuary in between inky pools of night, as winds rise and mists creep and bare branches scrape. I also have a few books already in the house that fit the bill, so I’m excited about joining in this year.

There are two I’ll make a definite commitment to read. One is Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith, a contemporary classic about a murder in Soviet Russia that becomes the subject of a cover-up. Really good political crime is such a rare beast that I’m very hopeful about this one. The other is Let the Right One In, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s modern-day vampires-in-Stockholm chiller. I started reading it at someone’s house party five years ago (I’m usually better than this at parties, I swear, but I barely knew anyone) and, in retrospect, should have stolen it; it was immediately gripping, with a wonderfully judged air of melancholy, and I’ve wanted to get past page twenty ever since.

A few others are options for when I complete the above two. There’s Stephen King’s The Stand, of course, which is no doubt extraordinary but also incredibly long and could throw a spanner in my reading life for weeks. I’ve also just got hold of Eliza Clark’s Boy Parts, a creepy/grotesque new novel which promises to be all the body horror. Left over from a previous charity shop binge is Mrs. Wood’s sensation novel East Lynne, which I think I’ve ignored for too long. I’m also seeking a secondhand copy of Wilkie Collins’s The Law and the Lady, since I liked The Moonstone so much and have had this one recommended as my next Collins venture by both Twitter and my colleague Zoe. And I’d like to include a volume of Sheridan Le Fanu’s ghost stories, as collected in either In A Glass Darkly or Green Tea, since I read M.R. James’s collected ghost tales this time last year and successfully freaked myself out with them. (I know they’re not meant to be that scary, especially to developed 21st-century sensibilities more accustomed to the Saw movies, but I am the biggest wuss; it does not take much.)

I also read a Dickens novel every late autumn/winter, although I’m running out of ones new to me, and this year will have to choose between The Pickwick Papers, Barnaby Rudge, and Edwin Drood. That doesn’t have to be part of RIP XV, although if it shakes out that way, that’ll be nice too (it’d have to be Drood to count, I think).

You can play too, if you like! Tag #ripxv and @PerilReaders on social media. Happy reading!

In case there was any confusion

Black lives matter.

Trans women are women.

History is constantly being made, not permanently enshrined in statuary.

Everyone has the right to protest injustice.

The canon of literature in English is characterized by the privileging of white, wealthy, cis, usually male, usually straight voices over those of people from historically oppressed or marginalized groups. Everyone working in publishing, bookselling and academia has a moral obligation to decolonize the canon, the curriculum, and their own industries.

I’m not allowed to say this stuff out loud at work, or through professional social media channels, because reasons (involving capitalism and the nature of marketing to our world’s elite). I’m allowed to say it here because it’s my space. These are the politics of Elle Thinks. They are entirely non-negotiable.

holding pattern

I have been intending to write a full-length post on Katherine Rundell’s The Wolf Wilder for at least a week. I have also been intending to write up my books of the year, and mulling over the idea of writing up my books of the decade. However, the best-laid plans, etc.: work has gone completely, utterly, resplendently batshit, not only because it is Christmas and Christmas in a bookshop is always mad, but because our bespoke book subscription service got a (small!) write-up in The New Yorker, and it has been huge for us. No one expected it to be quite so huge. Our little three-person team has been working flat out for over a week, needing help from incredibly kind colleagues on other teams, and with no signs of significant slowing anytime soon. Today was the first day since last Monday that I’ve felt I have enough time on my hands during work hours to make myself a coffee and go to the bathroom. (And, obviously, write this.)

I’m really enjoying reading all of your end-of-year posts, when I can, and would like to be commenting on them more – at the moment, clicking “like” must suffice. I’ll do my very best to find some time for my own: I really like the feeling of rounding off each year with a look back at the reading that’s shaped it, and would hate to not do it. I hope you all have lovely, lovely holidays.

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me on the radio!

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On Monday, I had the opportunity to join Antonia Honeywell—my dear friend, and author of The Ship, a haunting novel about a young girl whose flight from a politically unstable England once felt dystopian and now feels, quite frankly, like today’s headline—on Booktime Brunch, her Monday morning radio show. We talked about the surprise Booker Prize result, bookselling as a vocation, the power of narrative to sway lives (not always in a good way), and—yes—my own book! Interspersed with our chat were twelve tracks that I chose and (mostly) explained. Honestly, it’s a really, really good show: we sound like we’re having a great time and we are. Think Desert Island Discs but with more books. You can listen to it here:

I’m taking a break

You’ve probably already worked that out, but just in case: I went to Michigan for a week, didn’t think about book recommendations or blogging once, and felt so refreshed that I’m extending it. Check my Twitter feed (or indeed Instagram) for very short posts about books that I physically can’t stop myself from shouting about. Other than that, I’ll be commenting sporadically on all of your brilliant work, and I’ll be back when I feel less knackered.

Reading Diary round-up

More for me than for you; short impressions of what I’ve read in the last fortnight that isn’t 20 Books of Summer.

Lit, by Mary Karr: A devastating memoir of trying to be a poet, keep a failing marriage together, and kick alcoholism. (Two of these things, Karr achieves. The marriage isn’t one.) A little too long given that it doesn’t really acquire a sense of propulsion until the second half, which is when Karr also finds Catholicism–but her writing about faith, particularly faith as an intellectual and inveterate doubter, is electric. One for fans of Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water.

The Blue Flower, by Penelope Fitzgerald: Fitzgerald’s writing is very clear and clean and capable, and also entirely of its time; one wonders whether she’d get published in today’s marketing- and sales-driven environment. The Blue Flower is the love story of the German Romantic poet Novalis and the pre-teen daughter of a business acquaintance, which makes it somewhat tricky to read in 2019, although the narration is never prurient or indeed particularly sexual. Her atmospheric abilities are incredible, though; you do feel you’re in a nineteenth-century German market town on wash day. And Novalis’s odd, ethereal little brother makes the novel memorable all on his own.

The Bone Season, by Samantha Shannon: Tremendously fun contemporary urban fantasy, set in an England beset by a plague of clairvoyance and suffering under a repressive regime. Shannon makes Oxford a ghost town controlled by powerful, supernatural beings who are also utter arseholes. (One imagines there’s some not entirely sublimated irony there.) A bit race-y in its plotting, but then that’s why you read a book like this: to be swept away.

Shadowplay, by Joseph O’Connor: Set in the Lyceum Theatre in 1878, and with a cast of characters including Henry Irving, Ellen Terry, Bram Stoker, and (briefly) Oscar Wilde. Fantastically evocative historical fiction with a wide streak of poignancy and an even wider streak of queer desire and anxiety. One for fans of The Wardrobe MistressThe Phantom of the Opera, and Things In Jars.

Joe Country, by Mick Herron: I go back and forth on Herron’s work in the Slough House series; it’s sometimes wickedly funny, with a strong element of self-aware bathos, and sometimes tries too hard for its own good, falling over its own political incorrectness. Joe Country lies on the right side of the line, generally, though I’m starting to wonder if the series is now long enough that new readers will have a hard time starting in the middle.

Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin: Outstanding. It’s a very short novel about a closeted gay American man in Paris, who falls in love with an Italian bartender but abandons him for (he thinks) a respectable life married to a woman. This abandonment has…consequences. Baldwin’s a beautiful writer of sentences–quotable but never sententious–and quite how he lays claim to a reader’s emotions in such a short space and with pretty limited use of interiority is something I’ll only be able to work out upon rereading, if then.


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Young Writer of the Year Award Shadow Winner

Last Friday, the shadow panel had a Top Secret Meeting in central London to talk over the shortlisted books and decide on our winner. Since we’d all been discussing each book over email, it didn’t take especially long to decide, but it was still lovely to meet all the other shadow panelists in person, most of whom I’ve known virtually for years but never yet met in real life.

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L to R: Clare Rowlandson, me, Rebecca Foster, Annabel Gaskell, Dane Cobain

We were also, briefly, joined by a baby and a dog, which raised the level of sheer delight by a large margin.

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Friend!

Anyway, it is with great delight and total unanimity that we can now announce the shadow panel’s winner: The Lucky Ones, by Julianne Pachico.

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This book, man. It knocked us all for six—there was general agreement that for an author of any age, let alone a young one, this would be an incredibly accomplished debut. Pachico’s fearlessness in tackling complex, difficult subject matter; the emotional honesty of her characters; and the sheer sentence-level excellence of the writing made this an easy decision. Do pick up a copy. You won’t regret it.

Speaking of which: we have a delightful wee Rafflecopter giveaway for you, if you fancy it! You can enter here using the link above, or on any of the others’ blogs; it’ll run until the official winner announcement on 7 December. If you win, you can choose whichever one of the shortlisted books you would like to be sent to you for free! (UK only, because postage. Sorry, international chums!)