The Known World, by Edward P Jones

Painful contradictions of a cruel history
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The Independent Culture

It has been 11 years since Edward P Jones published his debut story collection, Lost in the City. Many fans were beginning to wonder if he Jones had gone the way of his title, never to be heard from again. This magnificent first novel, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award in America, ought to answer any lingering questions as to the author's whereabouts.

It has been 11 years since Edward P Jones published his debut story collection, Lost in the City. Many fans were beginning to wonder if he Jones had gone the way of his title, never to be heard from again. This magnificent first novel, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award in America, ought to answer any lingering questions as to the author's whereabouts.

Judging by the breadth and scope of this novel, Jones spent a great deal of that time writing. His labour has paid off. Deeply felt, exquisitely executed, The Known World seems destined for a permanent spot on the crowded shelf of great American novels about slavery, next to Toni Morrison's Beloved and William Faulkner's Absalom! Absalom!

Unfolding in Manchester County, Virginia, in the 1840s, the novel tells the story of Henry Townsend, a former slave bought out of slavery by his father, only to become proprietor of a plantation himself. The book begins as Henry lies on his deathbed at the young age of 31. Jones evokes the boy's youth as a groom and slave to William Robbins, a landowner who embodies some painful contradictions. He manages slaves with a ruthless business sense, yet is irrevocably in love with his black mistress.

Although this detail is not a huge surprise, Jones's soulful depiction of Robbins lends the novel a three-dimensional quality often lacking in novels about the antebellum South. Robbins's complexities also set the tone for other characters, all of whom Jones depicts as caught up in an institution larger than themselves, a capitalism based cruelly on skin colour and flesh.

There is a sheriff determined not to own slaves, but compelled to track down those who run away; and bounty hunters who can sympathise with their prey. Poor, landless, and often hungry, they understand the urge to flee for a better life.

Then there is Henry, who beats his slaves mercilessly even though he himself experienced the pain of the lash. Even after his father buys his freedom, Henry remains more closely aligned with Robbins, who demonstrated the Machiavellian principles and iron will necessary to strangle profit out of a plantation.

Jones has clearly done a tremendous amount of research, but it never weighs heavily on The Known World. He narrates with a compact, economical style that feels somewhat flat at first, but grows more resonant as it accumulates a rhythm. There are occasional moments of lyrical flight, and in them Jones proves how much control he has over his writing. He imparts his wisdom with a patience and understatement that is nothing short of miraculous.

Such quietude in the face of a dark historical chapter puts the onus on the reader to feel, and we do. It is difficult to read this book without wishing we could change history; it is impossible to finish it without a full awareness of how futile is that dream.

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