Edward P. Jones's novel, The Known World, opens with the death of a master of 33 slaves in antebellum Virginia ...few certified villains in this novel, white or black, because slavery poisons moral judgments at the root ... Jones writes with a sense of narrative foreboding undercut by the erratic nature of events, and the result is a portrait of a society that is seemingly immutable but as tentative and fragile as the map of the Americas...characters survive by negotiating mazes of moral contradiction, but they speak with a raw and lyrical bluntness ... His own narrative style is doggedly declarative, slow, persistent, imperturbable and patient, but it gets the job done ...an achievement of epic scope and architectural construction, which nonetheless reads like a string of folk tales told by someone slyly watching for your reaction.
One of the best black writers in the country — albeit one of the stingiest when it comes to publication — Jones takes on the subject of slavery in a long, deep book clearly born of much pondering and major ambition ...a panorama of slavery in the American South and the particularities of how this so-called peculiar institution was lived ... Jones has done interesting research into the period and the history of black-owned slaves and the life of the Virginia countryside. Or he has invented it ... The frequent insertion of the research materials into the story itself creates a persistently distracting temporal perspective ... Whether true or false, [the research materials] distract a reader from the immediate narrative, breaking up the time frame and constantly reminding us that we are reading a reconstruction of a time and place ... If only he had focused on the today of the 1850s, known or invented, what a marvelous novel this might have been.
One great achievement of Edward Jones's Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Known World is the circumscription of its moral vision, which locates the struggle between good and evil not in the vicissitudes of the diabolical slaveholding system of the American south, but inside the consciousness of each person, black or white, slave or free, who attempts to flourish within that soul-deadening system ...a 19th-century concoction, rich in character and plot, comprised of chapters with ironic titles...narrated by an omniscient voice that can penetrate into the souls of the characters even as they leave their bodies behind ...a voice that understands the madness of slavery as part of a grander picture, one that begins with bright angels clanging closed the gates on our progenitors, and Satan.