Frannie, the mulatta murderess (just one of the many names bestowed by the press), is on trial for murdering her master and mistress. It’s London, 1826 and Frannie can’t remember what happened the night before she was woken in her mistresses bed, her hands covered in blood, her mistress dead beside her. In order to find something to help her defense – a well-meaning abolitionist lawyer – she writes the story of her life from Jamaican plantation to London, from house-slave to London maid.
Her ability to read and write, her eloquence, surprises all the English people she meets. She was taught to read by her mistress and then had her learning misused for her master’s intent.
The story of Frannie is compelling and horrifying. All her choices are bound by those who own or control her making the ugly heart of England’s Empire what is really on trial.
To say too much would take away the rush of the novel.
If you’re looking for a tightly woven historical crime novel that exposes the sourness of the sugar and slave trade through feminist eyes, then this is for you.
I’ll be reviewing How We Are Translated by Jessica Gaitán Johannesson next.
In the acknowledgements of this extraordinary book, Robert Jones Jr. mentions so many names in gratitude, it feels like a lifetime of all those he may have met, been taught by, read, listened to, watched, and this collective speaks to the nature of the work itself. The prophets, the old gods of Africa who survive the slave ships to the plantations of the American South, alive in the blood of people tearing their hands picking cotton, are a group that speak together. Behind every foretelling, foreshadowing is perhaps a better word for them, is a history of multitudes that presents alternative social and religious structures unbound by a Christian, patriarchy of shame.
I appreciate this shift in contemporary literature to embrace the chorus, for individuals are always an expression of the whole and this book is so brilliant at making the horrors of life on a plantation breathe with different facets of one jewel.
Robert Jones Jr. also writes to Toni Morrison in the acknowledgements, wishing she’d been able to read the book, hoping that somewhere in the universe she is able to be pleased with it. I feel certain if she is somewhere and has been able to see this book, she would indeed be pleased with it. He does such a brilliant job of showing what it means to love, how it shines, attracting and repelling others with its magic. The love between two young male slaves in the barn is one of the most beautiful depictions of love I’ve ever read. Their looks and bodies speak without sound, their love creates an awesome hope in the darkness.
I don’t want to say a lot more about this book. It comes out on the 5th January 2021 and you should pre-order it now. This is a book that will be on all the prize-winning lists of next year. All the praise you read about it isn’t hype, it’s true. This book is a majestic epic that asks all sorts of questions of the past and present, that seeks to find new ways of looking at the history of slavery and our connection to the land. The writing is fresh and ancient all at once. The Prophets is a fabulous novel and Robert Jones Jr. a writer whose work I will be waiting to read again with great anticipation.
I’ve been carrying around this book for the last few weeks and now I sit down to review it, I can’t find my copy. In some way this chimes with my feeling for the work. I’m sad I don’t have the book in front of me so that I can copy down the passages that felt most relevant to summing up the book, but then filtering my responses to the writing through memory is perhaps better suited to the essay-cum-memoir that is Lost Cat.
A compelling contemplation of grief and longing, Lost Cat isn’t just about the kitten of the title and on the cover, it is a way for Mary Gaitskill to prize open the lid of her emotions about the death of her father and her attempts at caring for two children from a disadvantaged home that she and her husband looked after now and again.
I really enjoyed this collection of essays. As it says on the back of the book, the essays are a mixture of memoir and cultural and literary criticism.
What I love most about the collection is probably what makes it most problematic: her very specific viewpoint.
Words like ‘fierce’, ‘original’ and ‘formidable’ get used to describe Rachel Cusk and her writing and I think these words are code for our confused feelings about her viewpoint and the precision with which she expresses it. We remain uncomfortable about a woman able to reflect upon her experiences in a dispassionate manner. We might not always like what she has to say – this is where Cusk is interesting and possibly pushing against our gender stereotypes – but she does say it well and she does offer intriguing ways of looking at the world and our relationship with story.