Anne Sanow's Reviews > The Known World

The Known World by Edward P. Jones
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's review
Feb 09, 2008

it was amazing

I'm going to have to rave a bit, because this is one of the best books I've read in the past ten years.

Jones packs in all the historical detail you could want, and of course he's hit on a subject--black slaveowners--that in and of itself is tabloid-sensational. Where lesser writers might lean too hard on the sensational aspect (or rely on it to bolster an otherwise weak narrative), Jones works it into a compelling and powerful story.

What makes it so powerful is a mix of fascinating characters who are woven into a series of overlapping plotlines. For me it's the structuring that is so brilliant (geek alert: I actually diagrammed the time shifts in the chapters as an exercise, to see when and how Jones yoked the whole thing together). This less than linear approach might be frustrating to those who just want things to be straightforward, but stick with it: the shifts provide suspense as well as texture, and they propel more than one storyline at once. They do all come together, trust me.

I also admire the overarching authorial voice in the novel, which certainly leans toward the formal, but also comes across as aware of the history it's grappling with: here and there Jones projects his voice forward for a moment, or seemingly digresses with factual material and research. Again it's all part of the tapestry and the mix, and I also think that the level of narrative awareness (which never disengages long enough to derail anything) adds another layer to the very idea of history--making the whole historical and contemporary both.

And for those of you who can do without all of the above writerly blather (a thousand pardons), you'll find in this book characters who are engaging, ignorant, cruel, earnest, sympathetic, tragic, hopeful, flawed--in short, complicated. Halfway through you'll be fighting off the impulse to skip ahead to learn everyone's fate.

Finally, I'll say that this book isn't perfect--there are aspects of what I've described above that sometimes don't work: narrative turns that do seem pointless digressions, a character or two a bit stereotypical or annoying. No matter. This book aims high, as brilliant works of art do, and the result is nothing short of amazing.

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Reading Progress

02/17 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-8)

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message 8: by Dan (new) - rated it 4 stars

Dan You make me want to re-read it. I loved the writerly blather

message 7: by Dan (new) - rated it 4 stars

Dan PS-- would you consider posting the diagram? I'd like to see how to diagram temporal shifts in fiction.

Anne Sanow Dan,

Well, you've given me a worthy goal for the new year: maybe I should try to translate that diagram from my own notebooks into something post-able (and legible)!

As for a "how-to," if this helps or is remotely interesting: sometimes I write out an outline of sorts, using characters and action points as reference, and then either draw arrows or write out where the prior/future links go. Or I use squares to represent the characters and make note of which parts they appear in and when, and draw lines to places where they're referenced, and so on. (At least this is how I'm working with my own novel in progress, and it involves a huge bulletin board in addition to copious notes.)

And do re-read Known World, by the way -- I did, about two months ago, and with everything about it that I'd remembered there was so much more even to enjoy and admire.

Let's keep in touch.


message 5: by Dan (new) - rated it 4 stars

Dan Thanks for the ideas, Anne. My background is in law, not lit, so I'm a kind of blocky, linear guy. Maybe outlines would work better for me, markers for time shifts. They haven't helped me in my own beginner's efforts to write, but maybe they would work for analyzing published works. Still, if you have any diagramly blater, you have a guaranteed avid reader. Thanks for the encouragement to re-read Known World, too.

message 4: by Lkohlenberg (new) - added it

Lkohlenberg I completely concur with Anne's assessment that this book is one of the best pieces of literary fiction to be published recently.

Thanks for the excellent review! Am finishing the book now and enjoying it immensely.


Bill Szymczak Anne,
What a wonderful review. I must say I agree this was a wonderful illustration of how to develop characters, a weave a wonderful story line. It also was an interesting perspective into the Southern culture, and how it related to the free blacks, and how they were so entrenched in the southern culture that owning slaves was a sign of success, as unlikely as that would seem.

Anne Sanow For some reason, GR has only just notified me about the last two comments to this review! I'm inspired to write some at length for a few more best-loved titles . . .

message 1: by Dan (new) - rated it 4 stars

Dan I would like to read more detailed reviews from you, for whatever that might be worth.

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