The Known World by Edward P. Jones
Release date: 2003 / 388 pages
Synopsis (from back cover): “…Edward P. Jones… tells the story of Henry Townsend, a black farmer and former slave who falls under the tutelage of William Robbins, the most powerful man in Manchester County, Virginia. Making certain he never circumvents the law, Townsend runs his affairs with unusual discipline. But when death takes him unexpectedly, his widow, Caldonia, can’t uphold the estate’s order and chaos ensues.”
First line: “The evening his master died he worked again well after he ended the day for the other adults, his own wife among them, and sent them back with hunger and tiredness to their cabins.”
Review: My book club chose this amazing novel from a list of Pulitzer Prize-winning novels included in the Read, Recommend, Remember Journal (which I gave each member of my book club last year). As I read this novel, I couldn’t help but think, “This is what Faulkner would be like if his syntax wasn’t so grueling and his characters were actually sympathetic!” Despite those two fundamental differences, I did hear echoes of Faulkner (who I love, by the way) throughout the novel and was then not surprised when Jones cited him as a favorite influential writer.
I also could not help but think of Morrison’s Beloved as I read this harrowing novel of the antebellum South. However, Beloved literally took my breath away at times, forcing me to gasp in searing pain, while The Known World did not. The characters in World were based more in reality, more three-dimensional than in Beloved, and therefore easier to live with on a day-to-day basis.
I felt privileged to walk with them in their pain, feel their outrage and champion their strengths — Jones does an amazing job of portraying sympathetic white characters who the reader does not like, but is able to understand. He creates black characters who we also may not like, but can’t help but feel great compassion as we witness their struggles and triumphs. My favorite novels contain fully-realized, three-dimensional characters who are not heroes, but attempt heroic feats — like not becoming hopeless in the face of misery and destitution — or in bucking a paradigm that somehow feels awry, despite no precedence for these feelings.
The Known World is undoubtedly one of the best novels I have ever read — not easy, but well-worth the arduous journey. The book club discussion this novel sparked was one of our best, too!
Intrigued? Please leave me a comment and I’ll choose a lucky winner by Saturday!