Books: The Prophets, Robert Jones Jr; and Good Grief by Catherine Mayer and Anne Mayer Bird

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The Prophets

Robert Jones Jr

riverrun, £18.99 (ebook £9.99).

At the heart of Robert Jones Jr’s remarkable debut novel is a love story. Two young men, Samuel and Isaiah, enslaved on a cotton plantation in America’s deep south, build a forbidden, passionate bond that moves, inspires and challenges slaves and slave owners alike. Their beautifully described relationship is seen through other vividly drawn characters: reluctant cotton-picking mother Essie, savvy spiritual housemaid Maggie, jealous older slave Amos and calculating plantation-master Paul. Their lives and fortunes play out on the sprawling, suffocating Halifax plantation, dubbed Empty by those who suffer its daily horrors. Epic in its scope, the novel portrays a black history that connects African ancestors, nature, spiritualism, sex, love and shared trauma – an ambitious and intense mix. Unflinching depictions of brutal abuse throughout make for difficult reading. While the novel’s elegant lyricism can occasionally confound, overall it carries a powerful emotional resonance.

TOM PILGRIM

Good Grief: Embracing Life In A Time Of Death

Catherine Mayer and Anne Mayer Bird

HQ, £16.99 (ebook £8.99)

Covid-19 turned everyone’s lives upside down, but for the bereaved, it twisted the knife of grief even further. Journalist and activist Catherine Mayer was widowed in early 2020, just before the pandemic and 41 days after her stepfather died. Her mother, Anne Mayer Bird, was obliged to shield during the first lockdown – so the two had to grieve without a safety net of friends and family. Mayer’s writing is diary-like in its directness, whether explaining the stultifying effect of “sadmin” or investigating if her husband, Andy Gill, may have caught Covid while his band Gang Of Four were in China. Mayer Bird’s contribution is a series of letters to her husband, John. Their story will be familiar to those who have ever lost someone – but despite the quiet devastation, the book is a celebration of life.

NATALIE BOWEN

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