Tuesday, June 1, 2004

Finished reading a superb novel last night, The Known World by Edward P. Jones. It's a fantastic read, 2004 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and it tackles a controversial subject — black slaveowners in the pre-Civil War South. This is something rarely acknowledged in history books, and seems inexplicable to us now – how could a black man own slaves? — but it did happen.

"The Known World" takes us into the plantation owned by Henry Townsend, a black man, and over nearly 400 pages we learn his past, his fate, and what happens to his plantation after he's gone. "The Known World" is filled with rich characters, black and white, from the white man who owned Henry Townsend's parents and becomes his mentor, to an aristocratic black slaveowning woman, to the slaves themselves. It's thought-provoking and Jones -- a black man himself -- grapples with slavery in ways I've never seen in fiction, showing us its evil is a lot more complex and graduated than we might believe. Jones, in his first novel, does an amazing job with a very complex subject. Perhaps appropriately, nothing here is black and white. The novel takes an omniscient view, scuttling about in time and giving us glimpses of how the characters' actions echo long after their demises. Jones is lyrical yet not overblown in his prose, reminding me a bit of Toni Morrison or "Cold Mountain." There are an awful lot of characters to keep track of here, and Jones' style of juggling timelines can be offputting, but it's overall a grand sprawling, sad and thoughtful success of a book and one of the best novels I've read lately. Check it out. Excerpts online here.

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