Edward P. Jones’s The Known World

The trouble when a book has received or been nominated for nearly every imaginable prize is that it’s often hard to judge the book on its own merit. Cynic that I am, I started reading The Known World with the expectation that, somewhere down the line, I’d find something that would confirm my suspicion of the enormous attention it garnered. Fortunately, I was wrong. This is an extraordinary book.

Jones takes an odd footnote in the history of slavery (the existence of slave-owning black families) and delivers a compelling novel, one that goes beyond the oddity to reveal insights about human nature. The story of Henry Townsend, a former slave who becomes a slaveowner himself, is told in a succession of brief scenes, interspersed with research notes.

Set in fictional Manchester County, Virginia, the novel opens with Henry’s death and follows the events that result from it, through the eyes of a number of characters: his parents, his wife Caldonia, his former master William Robbins, and so on.
Jones’ spare prose often mixes the matter-of-factly with the kind of detail that can break your heart. Witness how, after a wedding, a bride is presented with this gift:

About three o’clock, after matters had quieted down some, Belle went out to where her maid was in the backyard and returned with a slave girl of nine years and had the girl, festooned with a blue ribbon, stand and then twirl about for Winifred. “She’s yours,” Belle told Winifred. “A woman, especially a married one, is nothing without her personal servant.” All the people from Philadelphia were quiet, along with John Skiffington and his father, and the people from Virginia, especially those who knew the cost of good slave flesh, smiled. Belle picked up the hem of the girl’s dress and held it out for Winifred to examine, as if the dress itself were a bonus.

At times The Known World is quite difficult to read, perhaps because of the distance Jones puts between him and his material. But this is a necessary choice, given the complexity of the story and the bleak subject matter. At the same time, he is deeply attuned to the contradictions of human nature and to the moral compromises we make in order to survive in the world.