English Course Review Round-Up: Part 3

One of my programs in university is English and consequently, we do a lot of reading!  This semester, I read 8 fiction novels for a class and I’m doing a series of mini reviews to recap my thoughts!  This is the third such installment out of four.  You can view part 1 HERE and part 2 HERE.

The Known World by Edward P. Jones
Standalone to date

One of the most acclaimed novels in recent memory, The Known World is a daring and ambitious work by Pulitzer Prize winner Edward P. Jones.

The Known World tells 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. Making certain he never circumvents the law, Townsend runs his affairs with unusual discipline. But when death takes him unexpectedly, his widow, Caldonia, can’t uphold the estate’s order, and chaos ensues. Jones has woven a footnote of history into an epic that takes an unflinching look at slavery in all its moral complexities.”

This book was one of the most interesting that we read.  Personally, I haven’t read (or seen movies of) many slave narratives.  I know the history, of course (growing up in the US, it’s a very prevalent subject, for good reason) but I don’t really know many of the complexities that kept the system in place.  What was especially surprising was the knowledge that black slaveholders did exist in that time.  This came as a big surprise to me.  In this regard, it’s an excellent book in the way of atmosphere.  You could feel the stink that came from the system of slavery rotting through every person.  Another thing to note is the gigantic cast of characters.  This also made this novel unique from the rest of the novels I read for this course.  There are at least 15 distinct characters; most with their own backgrounds.  I found that it’s best to just let it all wash over you instead of trying to intensively map it out in your head.  If you’re good at memorizing characters (and you live of Agatha Christie novels with large casts), then this is your book.  If you can barely keep four characters straight, proceed with caution.  It’s such a complete universe, though, which makes the title all the more appropriate. 
The Final Verdict:
There’s a whole world that’s described and the people inside this world only know it and nothing else.  It’s a really cool feeling and a very expansive and immersive book if you really get into it.  Be prepared for some mental gymnastics, though.
4 stars

We the Animals by Justin Torres

Standalone to date
An exquisite, blistering debut novel.

Three brothers tear their way through childhood — smashing tomatoes all over each other, building kites from trash, hiding out when their parents do battle, tiptoeing around the house as their mother sleeps off her graveyard shift. Paps and Ma are from Brooklyn — he’s Puerto Rican, she’s white — and their love is a serious, dangerous thing that makes and unmakes a family many times.

Life in this family is fierce and absorbing, full of chaos and heartbreak and the euphoria of belonging completely to one another. From the intense familial unity felt by a child to the profound alienation he endures as he begins to see the world, this beautiful novel reinvents the coming-of-age story in a way that is sly and punch-in-the-stomach powerful.

Written in magical language with unforgettable images, this is a stunning exploration of the viscerally charged landscape of growing up, how deeply we are formed by our earliest bonds, and how we are ultimately propelled at escape velocity toward our futures.”

I really enjoyed this, actually!  Honestly, it sounded a lot like something I would write.  Everything is very metaphorical and poetic.  Seeing as this novel is a scant 128 pages, a lot has to fit in there so there’s a good amount of reading between the lines to be done.  This was one of my favorite books that I have read for my program thus far, however.  If you take the time to look into the beautiful sentence structure that makes up this book, the themes (mainly childhood and coming-of-age) are developed with impeccable skill.  If you don’t like that sort of thing, though, this will get very tiresome, very fast.  At the beginning, I wasn’t paying attention to the word choice and was instead frustrated by the lack of obvious overarching plot.  While this is a full novel because of it chronology and overarching themes and characters, it could also make it’s way in the world as a short story collection.  You do have to look in order to see what’s there.  Just to get you started, I’ll give you a hint: in the beginning chapter, the author uses ‘we’ and repetition of sentence structure to emphasize that point while in the last chapters, there is a distinct use of ‘I’ (and generally separate pronouns).
The Final Verdict:
Though you have to dig a little to find it, there is a cache of gold at the center of this novel.
4.5 stars

Have you read either of these books?  What did you think of them?

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