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I really liked this slow book about the life of a community in Virgina before the Civil War. I didn't know black people could own slaves back then. The story is tragically beautiful;it takes place on a plantation where the black owner dies. From then on, everything starts to go wrong on the plantation, and slaves keep disappearing.. The writing is astonishing : present and past are subtly intertwined to carry the plot until an inevitable conclusion. The characters are truly remarkable, and true to life.
Meine Rezension ist nur für Nicht-Native-Speaker interessant. Kurz zu mir: bin 44, hatte Englisch-LK in der Schule und lese 2-3 englische Bücher pro Jahr. Das Buch war für mich aus 2 Gründen anstrengend zu lesen: 1. Verwendete Sprache: Im ersten Drittel (gefühlt) des Buches kamen viele Redewendungen vor, die ich nicht kannte. Wahrscheinlich hat der Autor damit dem Milieu Rechnung getragen (19. Jhd., Schwarze Bevölkerung in den Südstaaten der USA). Teilweise wurden Wörter in einer Bedeutung genutzt, die im Wörterbuch erst an x-ter Stelle auftaucht und die mir ebenfalls nicht bekannt war. Das hat mich öfter verwirrt, weil ich zunächst von der mir bekannten Bedeutung ausging. 2. Rückblenden und Vorausblicke: In jedem Kapitel tauchen, häufig mitten im Absatz, Rückblenden und/oder Vorausblicke zu der Person auf, um die es gerade geht. Ich komme normalerweise mit den Zeiten gut zurecht, hin und wieder hab ich aber doch das entscheidende Verb überlesen und war erst mal verwirrt.
So ab der Hälfte hatte ich mich dann eingelesen und kam gut voran, im letzten Drittel hat es mich dann tatsächlich gefesselt.
Fazit: Ein interessantes Kaleidoskop von Personen und einer Gesellschaft, die mir bis dahin unbekannt war. Kein wirklich spannendes Buch - um seine Klasse zu erkennen, muss man sicher besser Englisch können als ich.
Anyone about to read this novel should know that there is not an unitary plot that follows a set of characters to a finality. Thus, you feel like it is very disjointed or fragmented, and you may even stop reading it because you can't settle in for a good, fluid read. You should know that it comprises a series of linked short stories or vignettes, and if you are knowledgeable of styles, be warned that it is a post-modernist novel, i.e., a novel in which there is a fragmented narrative, a kind of narration or narrator that isn't reliable, and this is especially true when trying to understand what the "known world" is to the slaves. Yes, it is a novel about slavery, but particularly about black slaveowners. Around 1860 28% of free blacks owned slaves as compared to 4.8% of southern whites so this is a very legitimate subject. However, the novel and its sources are not based on actual history. Only the 1806 Act passed in Virginia that is referenced is historically correct. Everything else is imaginary, made up, and the novel itself becomes a kind of metahistory of slavery. You don't read it to further your knowledge of historical slavery. You read it for its vivid fictional depictions of groups of slaves and the white functionaries they encounter. You read it because the stories are memorable. There is, of course, the brutality of slavery, but most readers know about that so you read to dwell in the humanity of the various groups of slaves, most of them families. The title of the book is "The Known World" so read this novel to learn what that means: what is knowledge, what or who generates it, can it be trusted, how does it impact individual slaves. With a theme to follow like knowledge, you will greatly enjoy the book, far more than if you just read the words on the page as it won't pick up steam for you. If you like the notion of short stories then read the author's two collections. I rate this novel all five stars but with the caveat laid out above. It would not, however, have been my choice for a Pulitzer Prize, but who knows what the competition was. The author himself does not give very enlightening interviews, but it is helpful to know that his beloved mother was completely illiterate. That fact obviously plays a big underlying role in the novel. This is not a novel you buy at the airport before a flight. That's not fair. Give it your full attention with a question,for it to answer such as I have suggested above.
Truly a brilliant work when viewed in its proper literary context, this book has often been overtly characterized as revolutionary when considered in narrative fictional character development and depiction. A longstanding standard to episodic excellence, it is also usually cited as an emotional qualifier, connecting the brilliance of the pen to the heart. Indeed it is difficult to find even one character within these pages who does not possess a deeply connected emotive base…but oftentimes this attribute becomes the book’s major burden. In my view, there were just too many moments that I found individual personality expansion to be at the expense of the overall story.
This novel centers largely around one Henry Townsend, a former slave who garners his freedom and becomes owner of his own southern anti-bellum plantation and, curiously, master to a number of his own slaves. That theme becomes the central agenda in which Jones builds all subsequent tangents…each character and their individual story then expands from this notion and Jones attempts to scrutinize the impact of this 1850’s cultural phenomenon.
My feeling though is that this novel suffers from a variety of faults; the most obvious being this heavily induced character expansion. Paragraph after paragraph go into almost meaningless dialogue between individuals or, most often, descriptions of latent aspects of Moses’ or Elias’ or Minervas’ peculiarities as they diverge and contrast upon approach or exit from each scene. I also suffered with a mind-numbing of “time-travel” occasions where Jones visited the characters in the past and/or the future. These excursions, again, provided no useful subplot, only to personify the individual that he was describing…this became a sort of Catch-22 to the reader; useful for character depth but utterly wasteful as a storyline tool.
And again that is this book’s utter dichotomy…literally useless as a readable novel storyline but yet brilliant in its construct. I can honestly say that I’ve never read anything like this…and as you can probably tell, am torn as to how to adequately review it. Suffice it to say that this work has probably fallen into the class and readership that it belongs…intellectuals and college classrooms. Since I am neither, I nevertheless do count myself fortunate to have indulged if for nothing else than the brilliant literary stylings. Perhaps I’m not expanded enough but I also found it to be a rather tough slog and would certainly not recommend it to the reader who is looking for an enjoyable read.
This is not a book that "grabs you" or "pulls you along"; it was tedious work to navigate the text, but part of that was due to its depth and the richness of its characters and setting. To give it a lower rating would be unfair, as my own personal difficulty reading it was perhaps a product of my current state as a reader: needing hooks/wittiness, rather than prepared to do the necessary work this book required.
Still, the work paid off--the injustices resonate more and more as the book continues on, and it's historicism lends it a gravity that does indeed matter. Most importantly, it is a reminder that history is not simple, and that people are not simple, and that far too often the world is not just.
I cannot say that the entire reading experience was enjoyable, but I am glad that I continued to the finish line.
I have read some wonderful books this year and this is my favorite. Hell, it is one of my five all-time favorites. Why? Jones is an astonishing storyteller; his writing lyrical, smooth, rich.
The central story of a free Black man in Virginia in 1855 who owned slaves himself is a brilliant, compelling setting, full of narrative possibilities that are explored in countless threads throughout past, present, and future settings.
The cast of characters is large, the characters themselves complex and believable, and the story moves back and forth among them at different times and places.But Jones has a way of keeping easily confused readers like yours truly oriented without undue repetition. His storytelling I would liken to a symphony: the melody of story carries a paragraph along, but then a single sentence shifts the gaze back on a different storyline or character for one beautiful moment, resonating on something from a prior paragraph or chapter, before returning to the current melody. This highlighting of previous instruments creates echoes throughout the tale, achieving the perfect relationship of form and content for a historical novel.
This is not a speed read, but that does not mean it’s a slog. A little concentration is required, but your focus is richly rewarded as multiple facets of all the characters and situations are slowly revealed. There are so many books on my bedside table, but I will return to this one very soon.
My daughter was reading this book in her high school English class and I decided to reread it so that I could discuss it with her while she was planning her paper. I listened to this on tape when it first was published, which was a few years ago. I was stunned all over again by how great this novel is. The sections are not chronological, but follow certain thematic arcs, often going back over information we already have gleaned from other chapters. I did not find this confusing at all, but felt rather that I was getting different versions of the same tale, as if from different points of view.
If anyone has a doubt about the insanity of the institution of slavery, this is the book to read. The narrative approaches the subject in a totally neutral and objective way, quoting the laws of the time and describing events without judgment, much the same way as Primo Levi approached his descriptions of Auschwitz. The calm and even-handed prose makes the reality of slavery all the more appalling. Here's something I didn't know: Northern insurance companies insured slaves. This was horrifying to me.
The older I get the more I realize how inadequate my history education was. By reading historical fiction, I have been intrigued to explore little known facts from history. This book was no exception. I had never heard nor ever considered the fact that there were black slave owners in America. But, apparently there were.
This book follows the lives of a freed black man and the slaves he owned. The writing style is also unusual. When a character is mentioned in the story, not only does the author tell what is currently happening in the story, but also flashbacks and flash forwards of that character’s life and experiences. With so much movement in the story and so many characters, it was difficult at times to follow the storyline and keep everyone straight.
I liked getting to know some of the characters, and the ones such as Moses stood out in a curious way. None of the characters were truly likable for me except maybe Alice who acted a little crazy.
I’m glad I read this book - it opened my eyes and mind to learn about a little known bit of American history