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The Known World by Edward P. Jones

January 3, 2013

Nine years ago the first novel by Edward P. Jones received a lot of accolades – first the Pulitzer Prize in 2004, then the IMPAC Award in 2005 and when The New York Times in 2007 asked a couple of hundred writers, critics, editors to nominate the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years, The Known World was one of 22 novels receiving multiple votes – but despite of this critical success the greatness of this work has not been embraced by the general public (its Goodreads rating is a good example of this and certainly more significant than the similar reaction from the small sample of people I know who have read it). There is no doubt that literary novels rarely achieve the level of popularity of easier works and I guess writers and publishers fear to see their books categorized as such: innovative and brilliant use of the language, a multilayered story, dealing with the great questions of life, how can a novel be good without all this? Novels void of literary value are not worth reading.

“The evening his master died he worked again well after he ended the day for the other adults, his own wife among them, and sent them back with hunger and tiredness to their cabins.”

The first phrase of The Known World immediately sets the tone, we are in the South of the US, the place is a plantation, the time is before the Emancipation Proclamation and a slave owner has died: it could be a quite ordinary setting but Jones has decided here to deal with it from an unusual perspective, delving into parts of the history of slavery which are not usually in the spotlight, doing so he has succeeded in telling a highly original story, a story capable of shed new light upon the African American experience in the old South and its interaction with the white community. The Known World will make you think, will make you cry, will make read again and again many pages that you will love and it will stay in your memory forever: this is literary novel at its best.

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