With Her Historical Epic Palmares, Gayl Jones Makes Her Long-Awaited Literary Return

By Spenser Stevens | September 29 2021 | Literature

It was a long wait before Gayl Jones broke her years of silence. When Toni Morrison first discovered her, she said “no novel about any Black woman could ever be the same after this” upon reading the manuscript for Corregidora. It was published in 1975 when Jones was twenty-six. She followed up her debut novel with Eva’s Man and The Healing. But then after Mosquito, which came out in 1999, we wouldn’t hear from one of the greatest literary writers of the twentieth century for twenty-two years.

Her absence is finally over, and she’s back in full form with a new novel! Palmares recounts the story of Almeyda, a Black woman enslaved as a girl who comes of age on Portuguese plantations and escapes to a fugitive slave settlement called Palmares. Following its destruction, Almeyda embarks on an epic journey across seventeenth-century colonial Brazil to find her husband, Anninho, who disappeared in battle.

We’re not the only ones overjoyed about Jones’s magnum opus. In their starred review, Kirkus Reviews calls it “an epic adventure of enchantment, enslavement, and the pursuit of knowledge in seventeenth-century Brazil . . . . Those familiar with Corregidora (1975) and Eva’s Man (1976) will not be surprised by the sustained intensity of both imagery and tone. There is also sheer wonder, insightful compassion, and droll wit to be found among the book’s riches. Jones seems to have come through a life as tumultuous as her heroine’s with her storytelling gifts not only intact, but enhanced and enriching.”

The book’s riches shine in the way Almeyda’s story brings to life a world impacted by greed, conquest, and colonial desire. Almeyda encounters a mad lexicographer, desperate to avoid military service; a village that worships a cave-dwelling male “god”; and a native medicine woman who offers great magic, at a greater price.

Beholding all this epicness, the New York Times Review is astounded, saying: “Mercy, this story shimmers. Shakes. Wails. Moves to rhythms long forgotten. Chants in incantations highly forbidden. It is a story woven with extraordinary complexity, depth and skill; in many ways: holy. . . . This feeling of masterpiece-in-and-as-process is deliberate, and genius.”

Yes, it shimmers with mastery! Combining her command of language and voice with her unique brand of mythology and magical realism, Jones reimagines the historical novel. The result is a sweeping saga spanning a quarter century, with vibrant settings and unforgettable characters, steeped in the rich oral tradition of its world.

O Magazine feels the same way about Palmares, marveling at how richly textured it is: “This multilayered work vividly—at times horrifyingly—explores the impact of colonialism on native peoples and redefines the historical novel. But it is, foremost, Almeyda’s story—of pain, conquest, triumph, and love.”

In Literary Hub, editorial fellow Snigdha Koirala has more to say about how Jones’s blend of mythology and magical realism make us reconsider our relationship with history and how it shapes us: “A novel invested in grappling with, and breaking the lines between, historical conditions and intimate endeavors, Palmares troubles the idea of history itself—how we tell it, contain it, and disseminate it—and thus makes us ask what it means to examine and ground ourselves in this heavy thing called history. Jones’ magical realism evokes orature, moving from year to year, and propels us into a complex language and form to walk through, at times, an unspeakable legacy of violence.”

Even Esquire Magazine noticed her return. (But then, who wouldn’t?) They had this to say about the novel in their Best Books of Fall 2021 roundup: “Gorgeously suffused with mystery, history, and magic, Palmares is a remarkable new outing from a major voice in American letters.”

If you hadn’t seen it featured on Esquire’s best-of roundup, you’ll probably have seen it on ones from BustleKirkus ReviewsLiterary HubBuzzFeed, the Guardian, the RootMs. Magazine, just to name a few.

The only one absent from all the excitement is Ms. Jones herself, having disappeared from public life in 1998 yet having remained dedicated as ever to her craft. You won’t see or hear her in interviews anytime soon. But we have her creative output, which speaks for itself. As interdisciplinary scholar Imani Perry writes in her New York Times profile piece on Jones, “she’s given enough, having made space for the generations.” In her awe-inspired take on Palmares, Perry says that Jones “tears down the castles built by those of us yearning to tell a romantic and triumphant history of Black life in the Americas. What remains is a tender, blues-soaked story of people seeking, truth, love and freedom in the detritus of the West.”

Palmares is the first of five new works by Gayl Jones that Beacon Press be publishing in the next two years, rewarding longtime fans and bringing her talent to a new generation of readers.


This post was originally feaured on Beacon Broadside

A Bustle “Most Anticipated Books of September 2021” Selection · An Esquire “Best Books of Fall 2021” Selection · A LitHub “22 Novels You Need to Read This Fall” Selection · A Kirkus Reviews “16 Best Books to Read in September” Selection · A Buzzfeed “Best Books Coming Out This Fall” Selection · A New York Times “Best Books Coming Out in September” Selection · A Guardian “50 Biggest Books of Autumn 2021” Selection The epic rendering of a Black woman’s journey through slavery and liberation, set in 17th-century colonial Brazil; the return of a major voice in American literature.
$27.95 US
Sep 14, 2021
504 Pages
Beacon Press