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I've been reading through the 'Best Books of the Century' and puzzled at a couple of them. But Edward P Jones is an astonishing storyteller who captured me from the outset of this epic tale. His style means you can almost hear him narrate, even down to his 'interrupted' timeline when he suddenly remembers something to tell us (I loved when I am reading something he has told the reader before). The Known World describes a place and the characters that exist within it; one that will stay with me for a long time - I feel like I've almost been there! Brilliant book.
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.
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.
Well written and quite interesting. Wonderful job of character development. I think that before I read the book, which I read as a member of a local book club that reads fiction and non-fiction books based on American history, I knew that some free blacks in the pre-Civil-War South owned slaves, I hadn't ever thought about how that would have worked on of the effect it had on both the black slaves and black slave owners. The book jumps back and forth though time, which means you have to pay attention as you read, but then that's what one should always be doing when one reads anyway. Recommended book!
Late in the book, the author lapses into pedestrian descriptions, but the reader can forgive him because there are soon winds from memories that carry the reader forward. Mr Jones is a gifted story teller, with solid characters and economy of attention to details. He does not forget a character drawn earlier must keep its original image. While some parts might seem more short story than novel, Mr Jones manages all the threads separated by years. That impression might be shaded because I read his collections of short stories before taking up this book. On to his essays now.
Brilliant. Unlike anything else I have read. The writing style is fascinating. Portrays a very controversial historical time in a completely nonjudgmental way, merely states the uncomfortable facts according to unforgettable characters. The author leaps forward, then backward, then forward in time, making it difficult to follow, but well worth my time in figuring it all out.
I have no doubt that this will become required high school reading after it settles into the libraries of literature.
Regarding this being a "difficult" read:
This is true. I usually read approximately 2 novels per week, and this took me over 2 weeks to finish. It is hard. Here's why: In a good novel, the plot is usually continuous, so you keep reading because you want to know what happens on the next page. In _The_Known_World, there are many characters, and Jones frequently stops to skip around in time. For example, the plot will be focused on person X. And then it will proceed like this "X walked past Y. In 50 years, Y would be walking down the street with W, and here's what happens"
So because the plot doesn't stay focused, it's hard to stay focused as a reader.
This novel does get far more gripping towards the end. The last 100 pages seem to be a lot more action-packed than the first 250.
Regardless of the time/character discontunities, this novel is just an excellent read. I'd say that the fact that it involves a black slaveowner is interesting and unique, but not required to pull the book together. In other words, this novel is not a "one trick pony." There's tremendous richness of character all around.
I would have liked to see more of the charcter Minerva who could have been fleshed out better.