The Known World is a novel that whisks you right out of this world and places you immediately in the center of the story. After you read the last page, you suck in your breath, murmur "Wow," and just sit there for a while. The characters stay with you for days. The Known World is a novel that you won't forget; the reading experience will have a hold on you for a long time.
The novel is about a slave-holding community in Virginia in about 1855. The story centers around the family of Henry Townsend, a former slave, who rises to economic success under the mentorship of his former owner, William Robbins. The tragic irony of Henry's life is that he builds a prosperous life for himself and his wife by becoming a slave owner himself.
Around the pivotal story of the Townsend family, Jones weaves tales of other members of the community, both slave and free. There is the saga of William Robbins, the most powerful man in the county, who inexplicably seeks family and love among his slaves while at the same time maintaining a fastidious control of his "property." We watch the struggle of the sheriff, Skiffington, who is uncomfortable with the concept of slavery, but dutifully works to uphold the laws that protect it. We see the day-to-day travails and politics among the slaves on the Townsend estate, and the awkward and ambivalent place free blacks have between restrictive freedom on the one hand and passively accepting slavery on the other.
The beauty of this novel is in the storytelling. Jones is documenting the worst part of American history, but he does so with such compassion and gives such humanity to all the characters, both despicable and courageous, that the novel enlightens rather than drags you down. There is humor throughout the novel. There is empathy for the moral dilemmas so many of the characters face. Jones is interested in his characters and how they survive the place and time in which they live. He sees, through them, how struggle can affect us in different ways: some rise within it, some perpetually struggle against it, some climb their way out by pushing others out of the way, some succumb to it, some are ground down by it. The key to the struggle for survival, Jones often seems to be saying, is love and connection.
Many of the reviews I've seen of The Known World compare this novel to the works of other writers, like Toni Morrison's Beloved and Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain. I can see why The Known World might be considered a part of that family of novels. It has that same parallel sense of honesty and unworldliness that those two novels have and, clearly, The Known World is set in the same time period. I'd also add that "family" of novels two more: Cion by Zakes Mda and A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. All of the novels show characters in a profound struggle for their lives and their dignity in the face of overwhelming odds. And all of them are written with affection and sympathy for their characters. They give voice to those characters who, like their counterparts in real life, wouldn't otherwise have one.
(A note on Edward P. Jones as a writer. I read several interviews Jones gave about his book--he is fascinating. I've never read an interview before with a writer who has such an unassuming personality. He essentially wrote this novel in his head for years before even starting the physical writing process. His method worked; The Known World won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Here is a link to a Boston Globe profile of Jones from 2003, and here is a 2004 interview with him from the website Identity Theory -- spoiler alert on this one.)