Book review: The Known World, by Edward P. Jones

originally posted elsewhere: February 26, 2009

tl;dr: Intimate portrayal of how the institution of slavery affected lives in the South...

In his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Known World, Edward P. Jones weaves together the storylines of many different people at all strata of pre-Civil War society in the South: blacks who are slaves, oversee slaves, have earned their freedom, were born free, and those who own slaves themselves; whites who own large plantations, those who just own a slave or two, regular working-class folks, poor folks, drunks, scoundrels and criminals. Jones' great achievement is to show, in a highly engrossing way without being didactic, how the lives of all of these people are profoundly affected and perverted by the institution of slavery. Even those characters who are partially or fully aware of the evils of slavery, and who try to minimize or resist its influences, ultimately cannot escape it. Slavery, in Jones' view, was effectively poisoning the very air breathed by everyone in the pre-Civil War South.

A book cover consisting of an old black and white photo of three black people riding down a dirt road in a horse-drawn cart, with a horizontal strip of small map images along the right side, superimposed with the book's title, author's name, a medal with the words 'Winner of the Pulitzer Prize', a blurb, and the words 'national bestseller'

Jones populates The Known World with characters who are complex, often flawed, and hence believable as denizens of that place and time. There is no character who is perfect or who would qualify as the hero. The language that Jones has his characters speak, and the way they behave, seem very appropriate for the setting. Thus, when the characters interact, and when critical events happen, it all seems very believable. Through his characters and the events of the story, Jones is able to deliver powerful messages without ever having to have a character or an all-knowing disembodied narrator explain the moral by launching into a monologue. Thus does Jones create a masterpiece worthy of the Pulitzer Prize.

My negative criticisms of The Known World are minor. I felt that some of the minor incidents didn't make sense (and hence I wonder why Jones included them). Jones' choice of words in his descriptions is not as precise as some other authors, and while I commend him for shuffling his chronology and for leaving reality to explore the world of the fantastic, these scenes don't flow quite as smoothly or poetically as a true master of this type of writing, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But not being Gabriel Garcia Marquez is hardly a sin. The Known World delivers an important, powerful message in an accessible, engrossing way, and is likely to be one of the more memorable novels that you read.