Edward P. Jones’ The Known World moves easily between perspectives; the whole dis-eased county (fictional Manchester County in slavery era Virginia, USA), and no individual or set of individuals, is the main character. Some in the county self-identify as good people, some don’t give a bleep for your moral yardsticks, but they’re all living, some comfortably, some uneasily, some more comfortably than they’ll admit to themselves, in a system built on human suffering.
In any slave narrative, as a descendent of people who were once enslaved, I come at it with a bias against the enslavers, but I’m always curious to understand what ‘good people’ tell themselves to support tacitly or overtly an evil system. Whether that system is a modern system built on anti-Other, dog-whistle rhetoric, egging on violence against the Other, or a historical time in which generations of the Other were robbed of freedom over body, spirit, and mind.
Reading The Known World, though given more than enough to understand their perspective and how they had arrived at it, I struggled to find any of the enslavers empathetic, and so too the law enforcers and others who normalized an evil that still pains the Black body/psyche to this day. The closest I came to finding a good white man in this book was the sheriff and, well, he commits one of the most hateful acts in the end and reveals himself to be just as racially dis-eased in thinking as any of the others who commit hateful acts throughout.
But this is a book about the little known truth that blacks in the Americas also enslaved other blacks. One of the book’s earliest casualties is a black man who was freed from enslavement through years of his father working to buy his freedom (as he has bought his own and his wife’s). That man, despite his father’s good example, bought in to the system – by which I mean he bought people and made them his slaves, by which I mean he bought in to the idea that in order to be a man of worth he too must be an enslaver even if the colour of his skin limited whatever power his wealth and a powerful connection attracted to him. He was characterized as one of the good ones who didn’t do unnecessary harm. His wife, too. And yet, they were enslavers, and this good man even had a man painfully mutilated as punishment for running away.
There is a mesmerizing quality to the narrative in The Known World, the way the writer builds the world of the story so that it takes shape around you, so that you can feel the earth beneath you, but at the same time throws you off balance, repeatedly. For example, time is unstructured so that the story is, maybe, 78 percent linear. The rest of the time, the narrator will knock the earth out from under you with a flash forward or flash back or …what is it when you meet a character after knowing the details of their dying so that when you’re reading about them it’s like you’re reading about a ghost and you almost resent being made to care about them knowing that you’ve already lost them? Jones uses time craftily – when you see an overseer still comfortable in his position of authority and get a fleeting flash forward to him suffering the same fate as ‘bad slaves’ (read: enslaved people who have never forgotten their humanity), you can’t help feeling frustrated and curious.
The word page-turner is used for every whodunit these days, and this work of historical fiction with a heavy dose of magical realism is far from that, but a page turner it is, in spite of a measured storytelling pace and tone that reads like something being read hearthside as just another story of another community, nothing special or unusual, and yet so much searing and jarring, about it.
My emotional reaction to the darkness in the novel, the casual cruelty, was oddly muted – deeply felt but not loud (not rage-y). Perhaps because after a time the pace and tone and matter-of-fact violence lulls you in to an acceptance that bad things are going to happen and that it will rock you, but there’s nothing you can do to stop it (short of closing the book; though you can’t). There are *SPOILER ALERT* some happy endings though.
That this book is built on the little known reality of Blacks who were themselves enslavers makes this book interesting and intriguing. But it is also the story of a fictional county in the 1800s, a place where these things happen as they happened every where at the time. A book which somehow manages to give even minor characters their full arc so that what we have in the end is a real sense of the community (and the communities it touches) – a directionless dog, an Indian involved in slave catching and the mutilation of runaways, a man who loses everything and learns nothing, a boy who shows a hurting man kindness and is worked to death, a shiftless womaniser if ever there was one who has a Saul-Paul come to Jesus moment and is not only transformed himself but manages to transform his community, a baby in slavery and the free man he would be, all the people that make up a world, all the things we can’t control, and the maybe one thing we can. It’s all there. And the way the author threads in what may or may not be actual facts, as recorded in the future, about the county, grounds the story, making it feel less something that could have happened and more something that maybe did.
Like I said, compelling.