An interesting novel both for its post-modernist style of narrative and its subject matter. The latter is a little-discussed point in American History—that many blacks owned black slaves (In the 1860s, 28% of free blacks owned slaves compared to 4.8% of whites). Thus the subjects of life as a slave, freed slaves, and slave-owners (white and black) are woven throughout. The style may make some feel the novel is disjointed, as it jumps around from character to character, and even back and forth in time (sometimes even adding a brief sentence or two about what some character’s descendent said to someone a century later).
The story is compelling, not for a clear narrative arc or resolution (except death), but for its seeming accurate portrayal of life in a culture transitioning out of the use of slavery. Everything is here: brutality, kindness, struggle, selfishness, integrity, evil, suffering and heroics. Yet the author does not intrude with any value judgments on the characters—he simply tells the story and lets the reader struggle—not so much with the good and bad characters, but with those who are a little of both, or those who are a product of their culture.
My guess is that the author intends us also to wrestle with the idea of truth. Today, with so many sources available to us, we hear many narratives, interpretations, and ‘facts’ which may or may not be true. How do we know? When do we take someone’s word for what happened, or what a person is like? Thus, the title, “The Known World,” as it relates to our received view of America slavery—some of it seems true, some does not, and some we simply cannot know.
Having our notions challenged is always a good thing, but something that is becoming increasingly out of vogue. Novels such as this can challenge us, if we allow it.
Regardless of its ‘meaning,’ the book is compelling in its telling, characterization, and cultural depiction. It does not draw you along with suspense and cliffhangers. But the writing is excellent, and as a foray into an 1800’s slice of America life, it is interesting and challenging.
This book won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004.
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