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Sunday, January 30, 2011 1:42 pm
Exploring "The Known World"
Posted by: Ted Balcom

The Known World is the first (and so far, only) novel by Edward P. Jones.  It was published in 2003 and received high praise from many critics.  It then went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize.  But is it a good book for a discussion?

My answer is — yes and no.  The Known World was the featured title at my January book group, and I must remark on a couple of things that struck me.  First of all, the turnout was lower than usual — not a good sign, but then, it was a winter evening, and very cold outside.  Then, as we went around the table, it seemed that most of the group members had struggled with reading the book, and for various reasons, were not positive about it.

This book is not a quick read.  The style is extremely layered, presenting a great number of details, and in the first 50 pages, perhaps the same amount of characters are introduced.  It’s an unusual novel, in that there seems to be no central character, nor is there a real plot, at least not in the conventional sense.  Its main subject is slavery, which is examined from all points of view, and in that respect, it can be quite interesting — because of all the information and insights it provides.

Jones has created an imaginary county in Virginia where he sets his characters, most of whom are slaves, in a period prior to the Civil War.  One of these people is a former slave, now a plantation owner, with his own slaves.  That was a new idea for most of the discussion group — that a man who had been a slave and who gained his freedom then went on to use his black brothers as slaves for his own benefit.  The book is full of surprises like this.  Another character, a white slave owner, has a black mistress whom he sets up in her own house, where she lives with his two children.  He loves her more than he does his white wife, back at the plantation.

Not all of the white characters are in favor of slavery, which adds some interesting tension to the tale.  Many of the characters are deeply religious, and speak to their God throughout the story, asking for guidance even as they commit terrible deeds.  Some critics found the many characters in the book “overdescribed,” with the author “lingering too long on minutia,” but I felt this emphasis on details added a certain richness to the novel that ultimately I appreciated.  With some books, you have to accept a slower pace and go with it, acknowledging the author’s intent to paint a large, full canvas that takes time to create.

Critics found in Jones similarities to Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and William Faulkner — so if you like those authors, perhaps you will find something to enjoy in this book.  Jones also attaches headings to his chapters in the Victorian manner, describing the action contained therein, and some readers may appreciate the flavor this adds to the novel.

One does come away with a greater sense of the impact of slavery on the people who endured it — realizing there were some who were destroyed by it, and yet there were others who somehow were able to transcend this horrifying experience.  So, yes and no — but I am grateful to have been introduced to the writing of Edward P. Jones, and I look forward to the novels he may create in the future.

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