The Known World is not a book that you will soon forget. As you turn the pages, the story reveals itself as such a singular and unique piece of work that, despite some its imperfections, it’s something that sticks in your head. It’s one of the rare books that offers up an unknown world to the reader that far transcends the paper and ink confines that it’s written on. Author Edward P. Jones struck gold with this, his first novel, and the compelling story combined with his unusual writing talents have resulted in a stunning book.
Set just several years before the outbreak of the Civil War in Manchester County, Virginia, Jones gives us the story of the Henry Townsend Plantation. As with any pre-Civil War plantation at that time and place slavery was a sad reality. However, what makes the Townsend plantation unique is the fact that Henry was black; a free man, slave owner, and shoemaker, “protected” by the wealthiest white man in the county.
When Henry unexpectedly dies it’s up to his young widow to hold the plantation together and maintain a certain way of life. But things began to unravel one strand at a time and we experience this upheaval and its consequences through the perspective of the various slaves, slave owners, community of freemen, crackers and other members of Manchester County. With a sprawling cast of characters, each perspective adds a new piece to the puzzle as the author constructs a vibrant and complexly layered portrait of a disturbing, but very real, part of our past; a past that only half-a-dozen generations removed, we marvel at in disbelief.
Jones has created one of the most vivid profiles of slavery in fiction. Throughout the book he draws liberally from an historical record that, while highly plausible, was also invented. In the absence of any real historical record of black slave owners, Jones superbly employs this tool to reinforce the plot-line and it adds a distinct richness to the writing. It’s this, and other unconventional writing devices, that both surprise and add heft to the story. And while sometimes distracting, these efforts succeed much more often than they fail.
But perhaps the most impressive aspect of his writing is his restraint. In a world founded on excess, Jones’ controlled writing is a powerful contrast to the absurdities and extremes of the environment. It allows the reader to feel the rawness of the human emotion in its most powerful light. As he navigates through a system of complex moral issues and social contradictions -made even more complicated by skin color- Jones reveals his character’s pain, and societies hypocrisy, more through what he leaves unwritten, than by any of the words he puts on the page.
Comparisons to Tony Morrison’s Beloved, and William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner are apt, as they have become the contemporary standard-bearers for this genre. But what Jones has done is present this gripping subject matter in an original light; in a way that’s never been conceived before. He has put new wine in old skin and the results are dazzling, perhaps even unforgettable.