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28 of 29 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "A map of life of the County of Manchester, Virginia"
The Known World is a vast, all-encompassing novel of epic proportions that sweeps across the landscape of the County of Manchester, Virginia, and presents us with a broad patchwork of life during the slave years of the 1860's. Edward P. Jones' superior storytelling keeps the reader totally engaged as he jumps backwards and forwards in time, gradually revealing the...
Published on 12 Feb 2005

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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Stained Glass Assemblage
Blacks owning blacks is not something that one normally considers when one thinks of the conditions in the South prior to the Civil War. But, though rare, it did exist, and this novel explores one such case, and by doing so helps provide a more complete picture of the Known World, another window into that era and by reflection a vision of the current world.
Perhaps...
Published on 29 Sep 2003 by Patrick Shepherd


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28 of 29 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "A map of life of the County of Manchester, Virginia", 12 Feb 2005
This review is from: The Known World (Paperback)
The Known World is a vast, all-encompassing novel of epic proportions that sweeps across the landscape of the County of Manchester, Virginia, and presents us with a broad patchwork of life during the slave years of the 1860's. Edward P. Jones' superior storytelling keeps the reader totally engaged as he jumps backwards and forwards in time, gradually revealing the tortured and often grief-stricken lives of the various inhabitants of Manchester County, both black and white.
Slavery is threatened, and the promise of freedom is now hopeful for many blacks. The abolitionist movement is growing, but having free papers still doesn't necessarily mean much, and in a world where people believe in a God they cannot see and pretend the wind is his voice, a piece of paper often means nothing.
Full of heartache, loss, and the enduring power of the human spirit, The Known World focuses on Henry Townsend, who at 31 has achieved the kind of success, that most black folk can only dream of. Building a small fortune, Henry is now free, owns some land, and is married to Caldonia, an accomplished and educated young woman. In his early years, Henry learnt much from Williams Robbins, his white owner, and now he also owns his own slaves, seemingly without conscience.
The novel begins with Henry's quiet death, and then jumps back in time to the events leading up to the accumulation of his wealth and the sometimes-strained relationship with his parents. The story then moves forward to Caledonia's troubled handling of the estate, where she blurs the lines of behaviour, crosses boundaries, and becomes intimate with Moses, Henry's first slave. Moses, who helped Henry build the plantation years before, is now Henry's overseer, but he chooses to work among his fellow slaves. As Caldonia begins to rely heavily on Moses, Moses starts to expect his freedom.
However, things are beginning to fall apart in Manchester County. Slaves are beginning to revolt and escape, and corrupt patrollers are stealing free men back into slavery. Previously trusted slaves have become suspect, family is now turning on family, and the County's police force, chock-full of dishonesty and corruption are choosing to believe the word of white men, rather than the word of freed black slaves.
With his multi-layered and complex narrative, Jones portrays a world undergoing profound social change and upheaval. From the small, country cabins of the slaves, to the opulent drawing rooms of the wealthy white landowners, and to the bright lights and boarding houses in the cities of Richmond and Washington, the author offers an insightful, multifaceted portrait of America on the cusp of the Civil War.
The characters in The Known World are hard and tough, and driven to survive. It's a bleak world where black slave owners have begun to believe that their own salvation would flow down to their slaves, and if they themselves went to church and led exemplary lives then God would bless them and what they owned. One day they would go to heaven and so would their slaves. Mike Leonard February 05.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Do we really know?, 31 July 2007
By 
maya j (Quail Crossing) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Known World (Paperback)
The Known World is a literary masterpiece. In beginning the book, you wonder how hard it will be to read in the manner of mid-19th century country/slave vernacular, but in page after page, the language just flows, and there is no denying the language is painting a picture of who these people are. There are numerous characters, yet they are so vivid in their representation, it is impossible to get confused as to who did what. Some of the characters you love, and of course, others are just repugnant. As I read The Known World, I felt I could actually hear the singing in the field, smell the smells of the slave barracks, and see the humid, torrid heat of the southern countryside. It's not a typical story about slavery. Former slaves owning slaves is a part of our national footprint I don't think has been written about much. Now, thanks to Edward P. Jones, we possess a manuscript of an amazingly enlightened view of this old world phenomenon. In addition, Edward P. Jones' writing is so eloquent and fluent in the nature of "this world", you wonder if he could have actually lived it. It is a beautiful story that, although sad, is also compelling and makes you feel smug and small in the scheme of this "Known World".
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Stained Glass Assemblage, 29 Sep 2003
By 
Patrick Shepherd "hyperpat" (San Jose, CA USA) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: The Known World (Hardcover)
Blacks owning blacks is not something that one normally considers when one thinks of the conditions in the South prior to the Civil War. But, though rare, it did exist, and this novel explores one such case, and by doing so helps provide a more complete picture of the Known World, another window into that era and by reflection a vision of the current world.
Perhaps most noticeable at the beginning of the book is the style it is told in. This is not a linear narrative with a well-defined protagonist and a clear-cut set of problems. Instead, Jones jumps from character to character, backward and forward in time, sometimes with his focus on an individual, sometimes reading more like an academic treatise documenting historical occurrences - often doing so even within a single paragraph. Because of this style and the sheer number of characters that are introduced or casually mentioned (over a hundred of them), it is very difficult to get quickly engrossed in this work. Not until almost a hundred fifty pages in does a coherent picture emerge and the characters coalesce from names into being people.
But what does finally emerge is a picture of just how 'free' blacks could really be in that time. Though legally able to buy and sell others, the rights of this miniscule class of people did not extend to the full protection of the law - although as clearly shown here, it didn't extend to many others as well: the poor, the half-breeds, even women as a class. Entry into 'society' is clearly denied, even though some of them were well respected for their skills and general level-headedness. And they always had to carry their papers proving their freedom - in a world where only a few were literate, this is quite an irony as well as being degrading. Perhaps most disturbing was the incident of Augustus Townsend, who purchased his own freedom and then that of his wife and son, respected as one of the best furniture makers in the county, who is sold back into slavery not for any malfeasance on his part, but merely due to the malice of a 'slave patroller' - and the only action taken against the patroller is a 'talking to'.
Conditions of that time are shown almost as a sidelight to the story: the prevalence of diseases now unheard of, the very short life expectancy, working hours from before dawn to after dark, the casual attitude towards worker injuries - highlighted by the 'insurance' policy sold to the wife of Henry Townsend after his death.
The climax of this novel does not come as any surprise, as Jones has left multiple clues and forshadowings throughout the earlier portions of the work, but it is extremely depressing, pointing out in no uncertain terms just how inhumane all too many people are, and how little an individual can do to change his own circumstances.
Though clearly well-researched and with a powerful story at its heart, I found the style to be quite a detriment to the story's overall impact. Though the mosaic formed by this style does eventually become a large picture of that time and place, it necessarily means there is no tight focus, and difficulty in presenting any depth of character. This lessened my emotional involvement in the main characters, and their fates never quite got beyond 'an historical occurrence' to become 'a real event' - a pity, as with a more direct style I think this could have been a great book.
--- Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)
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5.0 out of 5 stars Do we really know?, 31 July 2007
By 
maya j (Quail Crossing) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Known World (Hardcover)
The Known World is a literary masterpiece. In beginning the book, you wonder how hard it will be to read in the manner of mid-19th century country/slave vernacular, but in page after page, the language just flows, and there is no denying the language is painting a picture of who these people are. There are numerous characters, yet they are so vivid in their representation, it is impossible to get confused as to who did what. Some of the characters you love, and of course, others are just repugnant. As I read The Known World, I felt I could actually hear the singing in the field, smell the smells of the slave barracks, and see the humid, torrid heat of the southern countryside. It's not a typical story about slavery. Former slaves owning slaves is a part of our national footprint I don't think has been written about much. Now, thanks to Edward P. Jones, we possess a manuscript of an amazingly enlightened view of this old world phenomenon. In addition, Edward P. Jones' writing is so eloquent and fluent in the nature of "this world", you wonder if he could have actually lived it. It is a beautiful story that, although sad, is also compelling and makes you feel smug and small in the scheme of this "Known World".
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A masterpiece, 4 May 2007
This review is from: The Known World (Paperback)
This is a powerful and absorbing book with an unusual format - lots of interweaving stories and jumps forward in time as well as backwards. I enjoyed the huge cast,though perhaps an actual list at the end would have been helpful at first. I felt I understood for the first time how slavery actually worked, and how completely it corrupted everyone involved. There are terrible cruelties in this book, all conveyed in beautifully "simple" prose, amd with an encompassing sympathy that makes even the most intransigent slave-owner still seem human. We judge everyone; but the author doesn't. He is simply showing us how it was. The Known World is a masterpiece.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Dull and full of digressions, 10 Jan 2009
By 
BookWorm "BookWorm" (UK) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: The Known World (Paperback)
This was one of those books that I didn't really 'get'. It's received such good reviews from elsewhere, and won two prestigious literary prizes, yet I wouldn't consider it any better than an average read. It's ponderous and slow, plodding along, and the text is full of unneccessary digressions which are irritating and make it hard to read. There are no surprises as the reader is told the fate of each character as soon as they are introduced, whilst even the most minor characters have their entire life stories recorded in mind numbing detail. Yet despite the wealth of character information, I didn't care about any of them.

The idea of the novel is good, a story set around the theme of slavery in the American south, particularly that of freed black people who own slaves in their own right. The plot itself isn't too bad, not riveting, but interesting enough, yet it is buried amongst so much dull writing that I found it a chore to read.

Whilst it is a step up from awful, it's certainly no better than average.
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12 of 16 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Slavery epic fails to fully engage, 24 May 2005
This review is from: The Known World (Paperback)
Over the past decade, a number of novels that have been both personal favourites and received significant critical acclaim have dealt with various dimensions of the issue of slavery. These include Valerie Martin's Orange Prize winning 'Property'; Abdulrazak Gurnah's Booker short-listed 'Paradise'; Caryl Phillips Commonwealth Prize winning 'Crossing the River' and Barry Unsworth's Booker-winner 'Sacred Hunger'. Edward P Jones has already received lavish critical acclaim for 'The Known World', including the Pulitzer Prize and a recent short-listing for the IMPAC Dublin International Literary Prize, yet I found this meandering epic failed to deliver the emotional impact that I had expected.
'The Known World' is set primarily in Manchester County in the state of Virginia in the 1850s and 1860s, although Jones also journeys outside the county and travels both forwards and backwards in time to flesh out particular threads of the story. If there is a central character in the story then it is Henry Townsend, a former slave who becomes a successful, slave-owning black farmer. Indeed, this raises my principal concern with the novel, that there really is no central character but rather an array of loosely-connected characters whose lives are explored in varying degrees of depth. As a consequence, unlike in the prize-winning novels mentioned in the introduction, I failed to particularly engage with any of the characters despite some of the awful incidents that occur. This inability to engage fully with the novel is compounded by Jones' impersonal and academic-sounding prose. 'The Known World' is clearly particularly well-researched and contains a wealth of factual information about the practice of slavery in the particular period, so that the work continued to hold my interest throughout. In particular, the novel is interesting in portraying blacks and American Indians as slave-owners; the social distinctions between whites in the South and the precariousness of life even for supposedly 'free' blacks. However, my lack of engagement with the characters in the novel meant that I finished feeling curiously flat and indifferent.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Anne Morritt, Malaga Spain, 9 Dec 2012
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This review is from: The Known World (Kindle Edition)
I found this book a bit naive and "preachy" Also it kept skipping a bit confusingly in time, often giving away things you would rather not know at that point in the narrative.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A book worth talking about..., 22 Aug 2012
This review is from: The Known World (Paperback)
The Known World, a first novel by Edward P. Jones, won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize and the 2005 IMPAC Award. It joins a long list of novels about slavery, the slave trade and life on the plantations of the southern states of America. The Known World differs from others in this genre, however, in that the slave owners are black and former slaves themselves.

At the start of the novel the reader is introduced to a great many characters in a few pages. You wonder how you will keep up. Especially as these characters confront you with their price tag intact. By stealth, Jones attempts to persuade you to view humans as property... legacy... a commodity that is insurable against accident but not really against age and wear and tear. Where lash marks on a man's back may reduce his potential price by $5 a scar, necessitating other, less visible forms of punishment. You find yourself doing the sums. You can visualize the accounts book. Give a bit here, take a bit there. If that involves splitting up a lifetime partnership, well so be it. Marriages can be inconvenient. The books must balance.

This book is not an easy read, but well worth the effort. Using multiple narrators, many tales are told by different people, so very different points of view are juxtaposed. Time is fluid and, in the manner of oral story-telling, moves back and forth. The reader needs to work a little.

The most startling revelation, that a black slave owner can end up owning his own parents and siblings, shifts the familial dynamics in ways that surprise and shock. Black slave owners inhabit two worlds. To be taken seriously as businessmen and women, they must be seen to be working within established systems. The Abolitionists are making progress, yet the move towards freedom is fraught with moral, social and political complexities. For the slaves, their known world can feel safer than the new one on the horizon.

The Known World is a novel that creeps up on you. You feel inhabited by something sinister and unpalatable, but also unputdownable.
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7 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Masterpiece, 30 Dec 2003
By 
This review is from: The Known World (Hardcover)
To be able to return, again and again, to a work in order to be nourished and to learn and to be ENGAGED...that's what the best of literature can do.
Here is that type of book.
I'll keep it simple; go and Enjoy.
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The Known World
The Known World by Edward P. Jones (Paperback - 5 July 2004)
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