Henry Townsend, a black farmer, bootmaker, and former slave, has a fondness for Paradise Lost and an unusual mentor -- William Robbins, perhaps the most powerful man in antebellum Virginia's Manchester County. Under Robbins's tutelage, Henry becomes proprietor of his own plantation -- as well as of his own slaves. When he dies, his widow, Caldonia, succumbs to profound grief, and things begin to fall apart at their plantation: slaves take to escaping under the cover of night, and families who had once found love beneath the weight of slavery begin to betray one another. Beyond the Townsend estate, the known world also unravels: low-paid white patrollers stand watch as slave "speculators" sell free black people into slavery, and rumors of slave rebellions set white families against slaves who have served them for years.
An ambitious, luminously written novel that ranges seamlessly between the past and future and back again to the present, The Known World weaves together the lives of freed and enslaved blacks, whites, and Indians -- and allows all of us a deeper understanding of the enduring multidimensional world created by the institution of slavery.
If Jones. . .keeps up this level of work, he'll equal the best fiction Toni Morrison has written about being black in America.
The New York Times - Janet Maslin
With hard-won wisdom and hugely effective understatement, Mr. Jones explores the unsettling, contradiction-prone world of a Virginia slaveholder who happens to be black.
Fascinating...poignant....[A] complex and fine novel.
The Washington Post - Jonathan Yardley
This extraordinary novel -- the best new work of American fiction to cross my desk in years -- takes as its subject one of the most peculiar anomalies of that endlessly provocative and troubling subject In the antebellum South, where whites systematically enslaved blacks, there were free blacks who themselves owned black slaves.
The New Yorker
Jones has written a book of tremendous moral intricacy no relationship here is left unaltered by the bonds of ownership, and liberty eludes most of Manchester County's residents, not just its slaves.
San Diego Union-Tribune The Known World is a great novel, one that may eventually be placed with the best of American Literature.
In a crabbed, powerful follow-up to his National Book Award-nominated short story collection (Lost in the City), Jones explores an oft-neglected chapter of American history, the world of blacks who owned blacks in the antebellum South.
Library Journal - Edward B St.John
A fascinating look at a painful theme, this book is an ideal choice for book clubs. Highly recommended.
The particulars and consequences of the right of humans to own other humans are dramatized with unprecedented ingenuity and intensity, in a harrowing tale that scarcely ever raises its voice...This will mean a great deal to a great many people. It should be a major prize contender, and it won't be forgotten.
A strong, intricate, daring book by a writer of deep compassion and uncommon gifts.
Recent Reader Reviews
Rated of 5
by Reader A difficult read, but well worth the effort "The Known World" has a discursive, character driven storyline. It is challenging to read, but its exploration of timeless themes makes it well worth the effort. At times I nearly put it down, but keep reading! You will be glad you did, because... Read More
Rated of 5
by Carolyn Cheverine A Known World I enjoyed this book immensely though there are some disturbing parts. The writing style was a little disjointed as the writer would jump back and forth in periods but that also added to the story. In fact, the way he wrote the book it seemed more... Read More
Rated of 5
by Kay Adams-Fleig
The storyline was interesting but the writing made reading the story laborius. I started to skim through chapters and then gave up.
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