The Known World

The Known World - Edward P. Jones This is one of those books that despite recognizing some skillful and impressive writing, goes under the category of not-for-me. The writer cites Faulkner as one of his influences and something in Jones' style does remind me of that author, admittedly not a favorite. The Known World is set in pre-Civil War Virginia, in the fictional county of Manchester, about which Jones weaves in faux census data and snippets of history. It begins in July of 1855 at the farm of Henry Townsend, a black man born a slave who is himself a slave owner. It's an unlikely scenario, as Jones himself admits in an interview at the end of the book, particularly since, as he alludes to in the novel, Virginia law didn't allow a freed slave to remain longer than a year in the state, and any who did were subject to being returned to slavery. However, the premise does allow Jones scope to examine the emotional, social and moral complexities of slavery, so I was willing to allow him some latitude. Ultimately it was the style that defeated me. His book is non-linear and meandering, jumping back and forth through time and different characters, and with touches of magical realism. I think particularly in a novel treating of such a dark subject, it was fatal that I never settled in or was grounded by my sympathy with any one character (and in fact almost every character was repellant in some way), and reading this became more and more a slog, particularly since I found the prose style less than graceful. It's the kind of book where--and right from the first sentence--you have to read and read again trying to parse the meaning.