Monday, January 17, 2011

A book worth talking about... The Known World

The Known World, a first novel by Edward P. Jones, won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize and the 2005 IMPAC Award. It joins a long list of novels about slavery, the slave trade and life on the plantations of the southern states of America. The Known World differs from others in this genre, however, in that the slave owners are black and former slaves themselves.

At the start of the novel the reader is introduced to a great many characters in a few pages. You wonder how you will keep up. Especially as these characters confront you with their price tag intact. By stealth, Jones attempts to persuade you to view humans as property... legacy... a commodity that is insurable against accident but not really against age and wear and tear. Where lash marks on a man's back may reduce his potential price by $5 a scar, necessitating other, less visible forms of punishment. You find yourself doing the sums. You can visualize the accounts book. Give a bit here, take a bit there. If that involves splitting up a lifetime partnership, well so be it. Marriages can be inconvenient. The books must balance.

This book is not an easy read, but well worth the effort. Using multiple narrators, many tales are told by different people, so very different points of view are juxtaposed. Time is fluid and, in the manner of oral story-telling, moves back and forth. The reader needs to work a little.

The most startling revelation, that a black slave owner can end up owning his own parents and siblings, shifts the familial dynamics in ways that surprise and shock. Black slave owners inhabit two worlds. To be taken seriously as businessmen and women, they must be seen to be working within established systems. The Abolitionists are making progress, yet the move towards freedom is fraught with moral, social and political complexities. For the slaves, their known world can feel safer than the new one on the horizon.

The Known World is a novel that creeps up on you. You feel inhabited by something sinister and unpalatable, but also unputdownable.

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