Could a black man who was once a slave become a slave-owner himself? Jones’ epic novel begins with the answer to that question, and it’s yes. The novel’s central figure — one hesitates to say its hero — is Henry Townsend, a black slave-owner in Virginia in 1855. Jones explores Henry’s life from every possible angle, restlessly following minor characters through love stories, comedies and epic quests, skipping across decades of time and continents of space (The Known Worldis a gloriously tangled root ball of a book) but always returning to the story’s nightmarish core. Slowly, terrifyingly, it dawns on us that although Henry has his free papers, he’s the product of an evil world, and his soul will never be free.
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