BY ERIC MARKOWSKY
[This novel is a C4 Great Read.]
It’s difficult to decide where to start discussing The Known World. The novel opens and closes in 1855 on the plantation of Henry Townsend, a black slave-owner living in Manchester County, Virginia. In between, the narrative casts so far into the past and the future that beginnings and endings seem to merge. The past is ever present, and the future provides historical context for events yet to pass. The Known World begins and ends in nearly every paragraph.
I admit it’s confusing at first. The prose is full of time cues, reminding the reader of where the story is and of the order in which certain events fall. You’ll probably have to reread early passages or even the entire first chapter, but once you get used to the rhythm of it, my guess is you’ll be hooked. Jones’ manages to make all the temporal pointing sound like a refrain, and soon the novel starts to read like a long hymn to history.
The historical premise is fascinating and morally complex. Henry Townsend, educated at the hands of his former master, William Robbins, becomes one of the wealthiest landholders and slave-owners in the county. His father, Augustus, who bought himself and his family away from Robbins, cannot understand how his son could turn down this path. As Moses, the slave overseer on Henry’s plantation, notes:
It was already a strange world that made him a slave to a white man, but God had indeed set it twirling and twisting every which way when he put black people to owning their own kind.
After Henry dies, the plantation is plunged into chaos. His widow, Caldonia, tries to hold everything together while some of the slaves begin jockeying for better standing and others start disappearing. The disappearing slaves cause a stir in the county at large, leading to a full-scale investigation of its most prominent citizens.
For a challenging read, this book is full of simple pleasures. The writing is excellent, and the plot is surprisingly suspenseful considering how much of the future it reveals to the reader. After introducing a number of characters and story lines, the novel manages to draw all its disparate threads into a tragic climax and resolution. The Known World is worth reading and rereading, and then maybe rereading again. It takes a little work, but the effort yields rewards, and the rewards are abundant.
Similar reads: Lost in the City (Edward P. Jones), Beloved (Toni Morrison), Let the Dead Bury their Dead (Randall Kenan)