Molly's Reviews > The Known World

The Known World by Edward P. Jones
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's review
Jun 29, 2012

really liked it

I feel almost intellectually inadequate to be able to properly discuss this novel, Jones' first. This book is so very complex, so tightly and carefully crafted, that I hesitate to even begin describing it beyond anything superficial. It is, of course, notable that it won not only the National Book Critics Circle Award, but also the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Awards certainly mean something, but they don't describe the artistry of this book. I seriously doubt I'll be able to, either.

The story is far from linear. It radiates out from a central point, a freed (formerly slave) black man in mid-1800s Virginia, Henry Townsend, who has become a slave-owner himself. When Henry dies (not a spoiler - it's mentioned on the book jacket, as well as in the first sentence of the book), we follow the slow unraveling of the world that he created for himself. One of the many extraordinary things about this book is the deft illustration of the intricacy, the entanglement, of all things. You can think of the book as a web. The author may jump to any point on the web - any place in space or time - and yet the commentary relates to every other event in the book in some meaningful way. And jump around in space and time he does. For example, it will say:

"His grandmother, or a woman who told the world she was his grandmother before she was sold away, had tried to tell him about the stars ('Them stars can guide you'), but he had no head for the stars. Now he looked at them and he raised his hand to his eyes to shade them, just the way he would have done if it were the middle of the sunniest day. He was standing less than ten feet from the spot where he would die one morning."

Then the narrative continues. Though at times confusing - particularly since there are a vast number of characters in this book that one must keep track of - the disjointedness of the narrative works. I can't imagine how else one would go about describing the whole of a world in all its facets.

I don't think I should go into the moral complexities of the book. It would take too long, and if you read this book (which I highly recommend you do), you'll have enough thinking to do. It is a valuable novel in that it shows not only the typical situation of a white slave-owner (the one white slave-owner is actually a rather sympathetic character), but also the gradations of status between white man and slave - free black people, Native Americans, poor white people, etc. Nothing is (forgive the pun) black and white.

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