Guest Review: The Known World by Edward P. Jones

This week takes us to Virginia with The Known World by Edward P. Jones. Entertainment Weekly says, “This award-winning examination of man’s ownership of man refuses to succumb to the calcifying effect of history, presenting Virginia’s past as raw, urgent, and human.”

Synopsis from GoodReads:

One of the most acclaimed novels in recent memory, The Known World is a daring and ambitious work by Pulitzer Prize winner Edward P. Jones.

The Known World tells the story of Henry Townsend, a black farmer and former slave who falls under the tutelage of William Robbins, the most powerful man in Manchester County, Virginia. Making certain he never circumvents the law, Townsend runs his affairs with unusual discipline. But when death takes him unexpectedly, his widow, Caldonia, can’t uphold the estate’s order, and chaos ensues. Jones has woven a footnote of history into an epic that takes an unflinching look at slavery in all its moral complexities.

Review by Laura at 125Pages.

½ Star

EdwardPJones_TheKnownWorldThe Known World by Edward P. Jones is a read that made me question. It made me question if editors actually read the whole book. It made me question if the Pulitzer judges read the whole book. It made me question if I had picked up the wrong book, because this could not be the book with all of those rave reviews. This novel won a National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2004. In 2005 it won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and it was a finalist for the 2003 National Book Award. In 2009, the website The Millions polled 48 critics, writers, and editors; the panel voted The Known World the second best novel since 2000. The book I read was a disjointed mess. No seriously, I can read difficult books. I like non-linear time lines and twisty prose but this took it to a whole new level. The synopsis tells us that this is the tale of Manchester County in Virginia during the antebellum era and a black former slave who is now a slave owner himself. This sounds like a deep and thought provoking read right? It would have been if it was actually readable.

There were approximately 80 characters, so I had no idea who anyone was.

The white man at the front door was from the Atlas Life, Casualty and Assurance Company, based in Hartford, Connecticut. His talking to Calvin at the door was what kept Bennett so long. Calvin eventually came back with Bennett and when Moses told him, Calvin went back and returned with Caldonia, followed by Maude, and Fern Elston.

The time line skipped back and forth often times decades in the future to tell what happened to just one person or object and then skipped back.

This series was Anderson’s most successful, and nothing was more successful within that series than the 1883 pamphlet on free Negroes who had owned other Negroes before the War between the States. The pamphlet on slaveowning Negroes went through ten printings. Only seven of those particular pamphlets survived until the late twentieth century. Five of them were in the Library of Congress in 1994 when the remaining two pamphlets were sold as part of a collection of black memorabilia owned by a black man in Cleveland, Ohio. That collection, upon the man’s death in 1994, sold for $1.7 million to an automobile manufacturer in Germany.

There was so much unnecessary description.

Clarence sat beside his wife and after a time he put a hand, the one not stained with milk, to the back of his wife’s head and rubbed her hair. The cow swung its tail and chewed its cud. It farted.

His horse, Sir Guilderham, was idling two or so paces behind his master. And just as the horse began to wander away, Robbins turned and picked up the reins, mounted. ‘No more visits for a month,’ he said, picking one piece of lint from the horse’s ear.

Seriously, I do not care about lint on a horse and a cow farting. This really detracted from the story for me. The Known World by Edward P. Jones could have and should have been a powerful read. Instead I got bogged down in the minutia and was not able to process the tale.

I had originally picked this up at the library and then, when I found the style to be so odd, I got the Audible version. I really want my credit and the 14 hours I spent listing to this back.

USbooks Virginia

  • Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

    Definitely going to pass on this one if it’s unreadable. I have a hard time with books that have too many characters anyway.

  • Debbie Rodgers

    Wow – I know enough to delete this from my TBR list (recommended by the library)! Thanks for the warning!

  • bermudaonion(Kathy)

    I tried reading this pre-blogging days and gave up, which is rare for me.

  • I have to say that except for prizes in the kids and YA categories, I usually do not like adult books much that win prizes. To me it is analogous to restaurants that get the highest ratings but specialize in things I would never like to eat. I think they both cater to rarified tastes. I guess I prefer the declasse items! :–)