It’s hard to know where to start with a book like this; a book so unflinching and devastating that it’s definitely not one I would recommend to everybody. So I better start with a warning: this isn’t for the fainthearted, and content warnings abound in this book and, subsequently, in what I’ll discuss in this review.
Samuel and Isaiah are two enslaved young men on an antebellum plantation in Mississippi, a place that the enslaved characters refer to as ‘empty.’ In the most unimaginable set of circumstances, the two find solace within each other – friendship, companionship, and eventually, love.
‘Sometimes, in Mississippi, maybe in the whole world, except one other place lost to memory, the sky was heavy. It was thick with something unseen but surely felt.’
Jones doesn’t shy away from depicting the horrors of plantation life; the ritual rape, torture, back-breaking labour and degradation. But in his lyricism, and careful attention to the interior worlds of his characters, he makes it more than just that. He also shows us the small moments of communion, of peace, friendship, gossip, and love. In doing so, it feels like a reclamation of history – a voice given back to the voiceless.
‘Tiny resistances were a kind of healing in a weeping place.’
I couldn’t help but be reminded of a fateful trip to a Tennessee plantation I made in 2017. Newly arrived in the US, I was naïve – I thought that the point of going to a plantation was to open your eyes to the brutal history of enslavement and the lives of those who had been forced to toil to enrich the enslavers. How wrong I was. The guided tour spent the first hour walking the plantation house and learning about the ‘master’s’ love of horses. The last 5 minutes we were led into the grounds and shown some reconstructed shacks, with a footnote that they were trying to learn more about the history of the enslaved on the plantation, but there weren’t many records so not much they could do *shrug*.
This novel is so powerful because we haven’t heard these voices, and Jones brings them so vividly to life. A powerful and effecting theme running through the novel is that of a severed connection to history. The enslaved characters in the novel cannot ever know their history – most don’t know their parents or the names that were given to them at birth.
‘The sound… made Amos long for the old place – Virginia. The longing was misplaced. That wasn’t home and neither was this: not these shores, certainly, but which ones, exactly, he knew he would never know, and that was where the pain was.’
Jones effortlessly slips in and out of different consciousnesses, both of the enslaved people on Empty and of the enslavers themselves. He develops complex male and female characters and gives us both a sweeping and intimate picture of life on the plantation.
There are times he does too much. There are interludes from a matriarchal African society who have fluid definitions of gender identity and sexuality, and we follow them as they are cruelly ripped from their homeland and forced on slave ships to the Americas. As important as this origin story is, it felt a little clunky slotted into the narrative. The writing throughout is also beautifully lyrical, but sometimes to the point of being inaccessible – when a slightly pared down style would be less alienating to a wider group of readers.
But these are small flaws in a hugely moving and accomplished novel. This is vitally important reading for anyone who wants to better understand the long-lasting legacy of slavery and institutional racism in the U.S., and I also encourage readers to seek out voices of colour on this book and these topics.