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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

What I'm Reading: The Known World

It is time for the year end barrage of reviews before I unveil my list of the 10 best books I read this year. Here is a book you all already know is going to appear on that list since I proclaimed it the best pre-2011 book I read this year, here.  Yes I am talking about The Known World by Edward P. Jones.

I need to start this review by first saying that I was guilted into reading this book by some friends/patrons who could not believe I had never read it.  I had always meant to, but never got around to it.  Then our fearless leader Kathy walked up and also expressed her shock that I had never read this book.  All three of them agreed that it was one of the best books they ever read.

Well, I am very grateful that they shamed me into finally getting around to it.

This book is a benchmark example of historical fiction at its best.  Jones took a little known fact of history-- that there were black slave owners-- and created a completely fictional story about the life of one such black slave owner, Henry Townsend.

The novel begins with Henry's death but then goes on to tell Henry's life story and the story of those around him.  Time is fluid in this novel, as is the narration.  The reader gets a bird's eye view of the life of a black slave owner, his parents (who as freed blacks are disapproving), his wife, his slaves, the white man who is his mentor, and many other people in his "Known World."

It is this wide cast of characters and their unique experiences, thoughts, and actions which are the center of this novel.  The plot is known from page one-- Henry, a black slave owner dies.  It is how Henry got to his final days and the stories of the people around him both before, during, and after this event that IS the novel.

I mentioned that time is fluid here.  That is an aspect that readers will either love or hate.  I liked how I heard about characters throughout their lives.  We even get to know what happened to many of them up to their dying day. I got to see them interact with a wide variety of characters.  This unique, unstructured style added a mythic quality to this story.

Speaking of the story.  The premise itself, a peek into an unknown part of history, was very appealing.  Just reading about the structure of a society in which black plantation owners bought and sold other black people was both fascinating and horrifying.  Jones was able to introduce extremely complex characters who eschewed any attempt the reader may have had to pigeon-hole them.  Everyone, white, black, or mixed, was "real."  They had things about them that could be labeled "good" and things that made you cringe.  There was no attempt by Jones to create heroes and villains, just an honest, well researched look into a complicated world.  Some people got what they deserved (good or bad) and others did not.  It was just like real life.  This was not a nostalgic look into a quaint past.

The detached omniscient narration added to the mythic quality of the story too.  These people, although not real, represent actual people who did live a similar life.  The ability of an all-knowing narrator who can see into the past, present, and future of the story and its characters added to the overall feeling that this was an epic tale of an adolescent America. As a former American Studies major, I loved this.

There were some absolutely beautiful and lyrical scenes in this novel.  Descriptions of a slave brushing his female master's hair, Henry's father's internal struggles with his son's life choices, and the Sherriff's story were all memorable to me.

The overall tone of the book can best be described as haunting, heart-breaking, but ultimately uplifting. I cannot stress enough how fluid the style is.  This makes the book leisurely paced, but engrossing.  It is multi-layered both in plot and style.  You cannot finish this book without taking a fresh, long look at everything you ever learned about American history.

As a final note, I want to mention that I listened to The Known World.  The fluidity of the story lent itself well to audio.  It moves easily between people and time in a manner that felt as if someone was telling me an epic story.  The beautiful language, multiple overlapping plot lines, and wide cast of characters washed over me.  The narrator used different voices to denote different characters, but in a very natural way.  I never felt like he was trying to create voices, the voices were just who the character was to me. From a personal standpoint, listening to this complex and layered book was wonderful.

Three "Words" That Describe This Book:  lyrical, new view of history, fluid

Readalikes: If you are looking for other novels which take a different look at the history of slavery in America I would suggest the following books.
  • Sally Hemmings by Barbara Chase Riboud is the fictionalized life of the black mother of Thomas Jefferson's children.  Like The Known World it is fiction but uses historical information to add to its authenticity.  It also shows a variety of points of view in this morally ambiguous true story.
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison is lyrical and fluid like The Known World and looks at another side of the consequences of slavery.  In this case, the psychological effects of being enslaved.
  • Kindred by Octavia Butler takes a modern African American woman and has her time-travel back to slave times to see what it was really like.  Reading about it and living it are two completely different experiences.
  • The March by E.L. Doctorow tells the story of Union General Sherman's victorious march to the sea.  Like The Known World we see a wide picture of the people of the South during the slavery era, not just the stereotypes of Southern whites=bad, blacks=good.  Both novels have a multi-layered plot with a huge cast of characters and shifting narrations.
Although there are no slavery issues, The Known World also reminded me of Away by Amy Bloom.  Here is my full review on Away where you can see why.

Although Jones' characters are all fictional, and even the county in which he set his novel is made up, there really were black slave owners.  Use this link to read about some books which look at this issue at length.  Please be aware that they are a bit scientific and dry to read, but they are very well researched and informative.

Also, don't forget that after reading a prize winning book many readers want to try more that have won that same award.  So here is a link to all of the Pulitzer Prize winners in the "Fiction" category.  But specifically, a recent winner, Tinkers by Paul Harding, is an excellent choice.  Here a man recounts his life story as he lays dying.  Like The Known World, Tinkers uses time very loosely and incorporates the lives of many people in its story.

Look for more reviews in the coming days as I finish up my year of reading.

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