Edward P. Jones has succeeded - no, triumphed - in writing an epic scale novel about an aspect of American history little known to most of us. Scholars of African American history are well informed that during the 1800s, when slavery was a way of life for both whites and blacks, there were many permutations of who is master and who is slave. The fact that former slaves, granted their freedom by whatever means, purchased their own cadre of slaves may sound shocking to some readers and it seems that it is that audience of readers to whom Jones wishes to address this story. Based on facts and related in a way that, however lyrically written is the story line, makes this novel seem like historical biography, Jones has created a novel that is compelling, beautifully composed, and very smart. His characters are so vivid that they grow to inhabit our minds, engaging our empathy and disgust as well as any characters in fiction.
The story of Henry and Caldonia Townsend, Fern Elston, the Robbins, the Skiffingtons, mad Alice, Zeddie, Loretta, Elias, Louis, Dora et cetera has been well outlined in the other reviews of this major book. But what takes this novel a step further than just being a fascinating tale is Jones' use of language. He waxes musically in describing the boundaries and inner spaces of his Known World of the plantation (closed to the slaves by the boundaries of the land and the legacy of ownership). He manages to be so intimate with the lives of his characters that he even chances to suggest the homoerotic underpinnings between Louis and Elias without calling attention to the fact that he is doing anything more than creating complete people. His use of the vernacular goes beyond merely the very tersely studied dialogue and extends into the mindset of the character who is remembering or postulating. Some novelists would elect to find that vernacular voice and then force the entire novel into its cadence, a style choice that can make a story cumbersome. Not Jones. When the story is reportage or in the minds of the non-slaves, Jones writes in melodic and eloquent prose, not unlike an orchestra in collaboration with soloists. This is a slow read and that is a good thing: speed reading THE KNOWN WORLD would deprive the reader of the warmly langorous pace of the times in which these wholly credible people "lived." A very fine book!