The Known World is an unconventional book, the oddest facet for me being the lack of a main character. Henry Townsend serves as a sort of focal point, but he dies at the beginning of the novel; equally important are his wife Caldonia, parents Augustus and Mildred, the overseer Moses, the slaves Elias, Celeste, Stamford and Alice, the teacher Fern, Henry's former master William Robbins, and the sheriff John Skiffington and his cousin Counsel. The secondary cast, of course, is exponentially larger. Then there is the structure; the narrative jumps around a lot, primarily between the 1840s and the 1850s, but with some leaps forward or backward in time.
If you can handle all that, the result is a rich and rewarding read.
This book zeroes in on what one reviewer has called a "footnote of history": black slaveowners. Sounds like an oxymoron, right? Not so, as it turns out. If I had to name the #1 best thing about this book, I would say it's the mature, nuanced way Jones deals with the provocative issue of slavery. This is no black-and-white book that beats you over the head with "slavery is wrong!!" by wallowing in descriptions of whippings, rapes, and families forcibly separated (although at least two of the above are present); white people are not divided into the Good Guys (all of them volunteers on the Underground Railroad) and the Bad Guys (all of them racist, greedy and cruel), nor are blacks stereotyped as the good-hearted but not necessarily intelligent victims. This leads to what I would call the next best thing about this book: the authenticity of the characters. (Second best not because there's any fault with them, but because lots of books have solid characterization, while very few can take a look at something like slavery in such a thoughtful and restrained way). It's not just the realistic portrayal of individuals, each one unique despite the size of the cast, but the way they relate to one another and their known world feels entirely real. There's no placeholder for 21st century ideas here; these characters accept their world as it is, as most real people do, and try to make the best of it. This book is sometimes heartbreaking, but never revisionist.
Then there's the setting and customs, which feel three-dimensional and well-researched. Jones doesn't just tell us what the slave cabins look like, but shows us the family and community life within them. And the dialogue: not only does it flow well, but it evokes a particular accent without bogging down in dialect so strong you have to sound out the words. Need I go on?
Although this book has certainly earned its 5 stars, it's not perfect; unrelated sentences are sometimes added in the middle of paragraphs, details occasionally contradict one another (I love Jones's specificity though; he's one to tell you everything from characters' exact ages to the price of a mule), the jumping around in time can be confusing, and a couple scenes veer bizarrely into magical realism. Still, this isn't enough to really detract from the reading experience. My one caveat is, given the complexity of the book and the number of characters, that readers who try to go through this one at 10 pages a night before bed are likely to wind up frustrated; it requires serious attention. Those who have the time should not be disappointed.