So if you ever want to read about a fictional town in Virginia taking place after the Civil War with more characters you can shake a fist at, this is your book. If you want a streamlined story with characters that are not flat, and a plot that is not all over the place, this is not the book for you.
I don't know what else to really say besides this book has so many characters it is pretty hard to sit down and point at one and say that's the main protagonist. The book synopsis for The Known World tells you that this is the story of Henry Townsend, a black farmer and former slave who falls under the tutelage of William Robbins, the most powerful man in Manchester County, Virginia.
Well it is also the story of Henry's parents, his wife, his slaves, his former slave owner William's family, the county sheriff and his family, etc. At one point I pretty much gave up keeping track of everyone.
Though Henry is in the story for a small part, Jones will reference him throughout the entire book when he goes from past to present and back again. I never got a feeling one way or the other about Henry. I thought he was an odd character who decided that after being born into slavery, he was going to go out and then buy slaves himself. He and his wife Caldonia saw themselves as better than the slaves they owned, but in the end, the book pretty much showed that they were not. This book could have been an interesting look at free blacks who went and then owned slaves themselves, but instead it felt more like a soap opera that I was watching on tv, or in this case, reading.
The other characters seem to be mere caricatures here and there and with the meandering story-line it was hard to even care about someone one way or the other. You would be reading and then Jones would drop that the person had died three years and two months later and then go on with his story.
The writing was really not that great. There was too much information being forced into paragraphs for me as a reader to even begin to settle while I was reading this. For example:
“The power of the state would crush them to dust,” Louis said.
He spoke, as always, not because he had any well-considered views on an issue, but to impress the women around him, and he was now at a point where the woman he most wanted to impress was Caldonia.
He had come to Fern’s classes after Caldonia had completed several years of her education, so she had not had much time to learn who he was.
And Calvin had said little about him to her, so in many ways they were still strangers to one another. “The Commonwealth would put an end to it right quick.”
I mean why put that part of going to Fern's classes. It takes away the entire rhythm of that paragraph.
Here's another example. We read about this Broussard character for a while during the book and it jumps around so much about his end and then would go back to his family who was not missing him in France.
"Perhaps it was just as well that Jean Broussard came to the end that he did in America.
His family would never have separated from the lover; he would have had to come with them, or they would not have come at all.
No, it was over for him in France.
Someone had even accidentally broken Broussard’s favorite mug.
His family could have done worse than the man his wife took up with.
The lover was, in his fashion, quite a religious man.
And he was handy with a knife.
He could carve out a man’s heart in the time it took for that human machine to go from one beat to another; and with that same knife the lover was able to peel an apple, without sacrificing any of the apple meat, and present it fresh and whole to a waiting child."
I don't know what else to say besides the entire book was set up just like this. Way too much information squeezed into paragraphs. The flow of the entire book was off. We started with an end. And instead of working our way back chronological with the beginning, the story goes back and forth and goes back and forth to other characters.
The setting of Manchester County Virginia, where The Known World takes place does not feel like a real live place at all. There was no real life imbued in the place since we skip around so much.
At the almost ending of the book, the entire plotting becomes a mess and the book kind of stutters to the end. I am glad that I read a book that was on the books every African American should read. However, i doubt I will seek this book out to read again in the future.