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4.2 out of 5 stars
The Known World: A Novel
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Showing 1-10 of 15 reviews(4 star)show all reviews
on June 17, 2004
While I won't go so far as to say that this was the best book of the year, as pretty much every book reviewer and prize committee seems to have done, I will say that this is an important work of literature and one that is worthy of reading and re-reading. My only criticism is that it introduces just a few too many characters early in the novel, and this flaw creates confusion during the first half of the book. I found myself at times trying to remember who was who, and how they were all related. But other than that, this is a great book. Many reviewers have compared it to Toni Morrison, for obvious reasons. I actually found that the prose and story were more reminiscent of Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. Like Lonesome Dove, this book maintained throughout a sense of an epic journey, and of a world and lives that had existed long before the story began and would continue to exist long after. The prose is simple and honest, with a sound of period authenticity. As for the characters, many are memorable, but none stood out as a true hero or anti-hero of the novel. If this were a movie, it would be a true ensemble cast with no clear starring role. I think that is what gives the book such a genuine feel. It is not just a story of one man or woman, with lots of other characters circling around the spotlight. Rather, it is a portrait of life in the South prior to the Civil War. The book is not about the characters, per se, but rather about the world in which they live. Jones has done a wonderful job of portraying this world in a way that doesn't seem to glorify or condemn any of it. It would have been easy to fall into that trap of making some sort of political statement with this novel, but Jones cautiously leaves that for the reader to decide. What Jones does, instead, is bring to light a fascinating period of American history, and by focusing on a black slave-owner, he has created an awareness that I think was lacking in American literature.
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on March 23, 2004
I wouldn't characterize this book as one I couldn't put down, but I am glad I read it. I find it hard enough to fathom one man owning another, much less the thought of a man freed from slavery turning around and, of his own free will, owning others.
There is something oddly compelling about Jones' writing style that kept me turning the pages, but he employs some literary devices I find distracting. For example, in many places the reader is told about an event in a character's history, their present circumstances and how this affects their future all in the same paragraph. Personally, I liked these shifts in time, but I can see how other reviewers and readers might find this troubling. Occasionally I was forced to go back and reread sections in order to orient myself and this, of course, interrupted the flow of my reading.
One thing I did find annoying in the beginning was the number of characters. Their lives were so intricately, interwoven I kept confusing them. I finally resorted to making a flow chart in order to keep them all straight.
The details woven into the story are so convincing, I have now read several reviews applauding the amount of research Jones "must" have done. In interviews, however, the author has stated all of these "facts" came directly from his imagination.
Overall, I thought this was a very interesting, thought provoking book. I would recommend reading it when you have time to savor the details and enough patience to untangle all of the threads. Definitely not a quick, beach read, but well worth the effort.
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on January 2, 2004
The hand-full of genes that determine a person's skin color are nothing compared to all the genes that give us a common human nature. Skin color was a local adaptation to the environment, facilitating the optimum balance of folic acid and vitamin D. This book, while fiction, illustrates the commonness of our natures. The genetically-provided ambition for status, money, and power (assisted by our impressive abilities to rationalize) operates at different levels for us all. Add in the levels of competition, and the scarcity of opportunity in that society, and the room for complexity emerges. A central part of this book concerns a man who's freedom is purchased by his parents when he is a child. This free-black Henry finds his path to "bettering himself" lies through the purchase and domination of slaves of his own; he rationalizes he will be "the best master". The many ways slavery and status can play in such a fluid situation is well illustrated by the interplay of plot lines throughout this story. It is the interplay of the variations that makes this book superb.
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on December 29, 2003
The Known World has at its center the wonderfully complex question of who is master and who is slave among the various range of characters that make up this intricate novel--free blacks who own slaves, free blacks who do not, black slaves, poor whites, rich slave-owning whites, Native American slave "patrollers", light-skinned blacks who can pass for white, husband or wife, etc. The complexity of the situation is matched by the complexity of the presentation, as the novel moves freely and often seamlessly between time and place. This is not a book to read, therefore, while you "multi-task" or as you nod off to sleep--it requires the reader's full attention. The story will frequently spin away from the main narrative, sometimes for a few lines, sometimes for several pages, sometimes even longer in the one section I thought overly digressive. While I thought at times the author switched time and place too often too closely, for the most part this was a highly effective and haunting structure.
This is a beautifully written book, with carefully crafted sentences and characters revealed as often through slight, small acts as through more lengthy poetic descriptions. At times, as with the digressions, the reader might wish for less full language, but such times quickly pass.
The characters themselves are vividly portrayed and fully so--there are no easy or cheaply shallow characterizations. Good and bad are not, forgive the construction, as clearly black and white as one might have seen in a less skillful, less ambitious work. Sympathies can often shift for the reader, which some may find disconcerting but which I found more true to life and much more interesting.
My one complaint about the novel is that is is strangely, for its subject matter and its events, lacking in emotive impact. Part of it is probably that the fluid back-and-forth structure, together with the multitude of characters and settings, combine to frequently remove the reader from a real sense of intimacy with the characters, despite the poignant situations they encounter. And the closing few pages, while horribly tragic, have been telegraphed in tone if not in deed for so long that they are somewhat anti-climatic in terms of their emotional impact on the reader. This may be a single flaw, but it is a major one and perhaps even one that will cause some readers to not bother past the first third of the book. I went back and forth myself as to whether the short-term impact of the many flash-forwards or backwards (which was often lingeringly sad) was worth sacrificing a greater, more powerful sense of emotional connection. In the end I decided yes, though just, perhaps mostly because it's so refreshing to come across something different. The imposed sense of distance can make the book seem slow going, but anyone who reads it will find it ultimately if somewhat palely rewarding.
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on December 29, 2003
"The Known World" explores the dynamics of race, class, love and justice is an environment where former slaves become slave owners. At first thought, one might ponder how could a slave obtain his freedom and then become a slave owner? Well, people do what they know. In this novel, Jones does an excellent job of demonstrating how slavery was one of the few means of accumulating wealth and status for many free blacks. It provided a promotion - of sorts - from the lowest rank in the slavery institution to the one just above it. Although black slave owners were able to accumulate greater wealth than some of their white counterparts, the fact of their race returned them to the lowest level of a society where race trumps wealth; where the color of your skin over-ranks every other aspect of your life. This dual existence is skillfully rendered throughout the novel as the characters' lives unfold and intertwine. Jones further exhibits his writing talents by creating a non-linear story that uses character interaction to move the story along instead of a chronological rendering of events as they unfold. This is a complex method of storytelling perfected by very few and managed very well by Jones.
So why, I'm thinking, did I initially rate this book a three? As I write the review it becomes clear that it's a better book than that. The fact of free black people owning slaves is an excellent topic to explore. Although I struggled early on with the text, I was determined to finish the book simply because I had not read any other covering the topic. While I knew that a few free blacks owned slaves I have never read much about it. The novel is well researched, informative and fresh . . . all of which warrants a four rating. The fact that I found the narrative voice dull and absent of any distinctive rhythm is the only thing that kept this novel from a perfect five star rating. It required a bit of persistence to finish the novel but it's worth it.
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on October 14, 2003
Edward P. Jone's novel, The Known World, is a story about the social and moral boundaries that were woven into the fabric of those living in Virginia in the time of slavery. The author creates a clear and insightful look into the lives of individuals whose lives were bound with the reality of slavery. The focus of the story are black slave owners and black slaves. While many are familiar with this period of time and the issues involved, Edward P. Jones sheds new light on the issue of black slave owners.
The perspectives of the slave owners, the slaves and as well as the freed blacks (those who accepted the fact of slavery and those who opposed it) are all explored. The thoughts of white slave owners and the whites who did not own slaves are also an integral part of this book.
The story seemed to lack a fiery passion to it that I thought it would have. I have realised that this technique is a critical part of the style the author used to tell the story. The lack of passion relays the feeling that these people had accepted their KNOWN WORLD, that slavery was a part of the fabric of their lives and was an acknowledged normal aspect of life. No matter who you were, you aspired to become a slaveowner because it signified that you were successful and deserving of respect.
It begs the question, what in our own KNOWN WORLD do we accept that in years to come will be viewed very differently by future generations. The story is a thought provoking, eye opening work by Edward P. Jones.
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I never knew that blacks were free in the South and some of them owned slaves. I never knew these black slave owners could be as cruel as the man depicted in this novel.
Other readers will outline plot for you so I don't have to do that. For me, the writing style stands out as both a strength and a weakness. Mixing freely the past, present and future, Jones often leaves the reader scratching her head. Indeed, everything is neatly tied up at the end but along the way, the wayward strands get a little tangled. Jones didn't leave anyone out: there's free man and slave, black and white, rich and poor, man and woman. Jones portrays a vivid picture of the South at this time, a picture rich in details of daily living, rich in character development and plot. Because he included so much in this dense novel, I never felt involved with any one person. Often, for me, a book is far more satisfying if I can identify with one main character, or at least, form an attachment for this person. There were so many people, places, incidents, histories all going on at once in this novel that I couldn't relate to any one soul.
I enjoyed the book, was glad I read it, but found it lacking.
Having said that, you should know that I intend to read his short stories.
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on September 2, 2003
Edward P. Jones's The Known World is a complex, multidimensional story of the interrelationships among slaves, Indians, black and white masters, patrollers, husbands and wives in an antebellum setting in fictional Manchester County, Virginia. The catalyst of the story is the death of Henry Townsend, a former slave who is mentored by his former owner, William Robbins, the most powerful man in the county. William Robbins has a white wife and children as well as a black mistress and children with her. It is no secret to anyone in the county that he spends time with both but prefers the black family, even to the point of educating his black children and his favorite slave, Henry. Henry's father saves money for nearly fifteen years to purchase his own freedom, his wife's and eventually his son's. However, as the years pass, Robbins's influence over Henry is gripping. After his father's purchase of him, Henry reluctantly leaves Robbin's plantation to live with his parents, but returns to the plantation to visit often. He grows up into a headstrong young man only to purchase land near his former owner. Under Robbin's tutelage, Henry purchases slaves for his farm against the wishes of his outraged parents who detest human bondage regardless of the master's race. When Henry dies young, his widow, Caldonia, succumbs to grief, and the "known world" of Manchester County begins to unravel. Henry's most "loyal" slaves run toward freedom and the black Caldonia must resort to hiring white and Indian patrollers to reclaim her property. The complexities are heightened by the affair that ensues between Caldonia and her black overseer, the illegal capture and sale of Henry's father back into slavery by roving "speculators," and the final outcome of all the key characters and Manchester County itself.
The author's storytelling style is interesting as he often reveals the entire history of a character including the trials, tribulations, and sometimes his/her untimely demise before the character acts in the present. Thus the reader can quickly surmise that particular character's insecurities, motivation, and vulnerabilities. The book is filled with numerous characters, many more than are mentioned in this review; all are similarly interesting and engaging as the aforementioned. For example, Jones also provides an excellent depiction of the interconnections and mindset of the slaves on Henry's plantation which are equally complex and intriguing as the other white character's relationships. The Known World is a worthwhile read of a world created by the institution of slavery.
Reviewed by Phyllis
APOOO BookClub, Nubian Circle Book Club
August 29, 2003
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on April 16, 2004
With "The Known World," Edward Jones does a nice job of creating characters and a haunting setting that drive the story, rather than vice-versa. You're drawn into their world in an acutely visceral way. A dynamic debut from a writer with a bright future.
If you're into writers like Jones, Michael Chabon, Norman Mailer, etc. (i.e., writers who weave jarring tales of oppression), then there's a new writer you should check out: Greg Ippolito. His new novel, "Zero Station," is absolutely terrific, and an excerpt is available for FREE. He's still a relative unknown (a friend turned me onto his work)...but this is a must-read. You can check him out and read the excerpt at: [...] Don't miss it!
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on June 21, 2004
I didn't much care for the writing style here, but the main characters hooked me into the story. In this novel of black slavery in the South, we have the rare true revelation of free black farm-owners who themselves enslaved and owned black slaves. This is the account of a white man named William Townsend who is fond of a black man named Henry. Henry was his slave in his youth, and William helps him buy his own plantation and slaves. We then later see that Henry mistreats his slaves just as a white slavemaster would. This story shows that, whether black or white, we're all human with the same capacity for good and evil.
David Rehak
author of "Love and Madness"
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