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A transcendent story of slavery unfolds in black and white

The Known World

By Edward P. Jones

Amistad, 388 pp., $24.95

It has been 11 years since Edward P. Jones published his debut story collection, ''Lost in the City." Many fans were beginning to wonder if Jones had gone the way of his title and wandered down some dark alley, never to be heard from again. His magnificent first novel, ''The Known World," ought to answer any lingering questions as to the author's whereabouts over the past dozen years.

Judging by the breadth and scope of this novel, Jones has spent a great deal of that time writing. His labor has clearly paid off. Deeply felt and exquisitely executed, ''The Known World" seems destined for a permanent spot on the already crowded shelf of great American novels about slavery, next to Toni Morrison's ''Beloved" and William Faulkner's ''Absalom! Absalom!"

Unfolding in Manchester County, Va., in the 1840s, ''The Known World" tells the story of Henry Townsend, a former slave who is bought out of slavery by his father only to become proprietor of a plantation himself. The book begins as Henry lies on his deathbed at the young age of 31. Jones then cycles backward and evokes the boy's youth as a groom and slave to William Robbins, a white landowner who embodies some painful contradictions: He owns and manages slaves with a ruthless business sense, and yet he is deeply, irrevocably in love with his black mistress.

Although this detail is not a huge surprise, Jones's soulful depiction of Robbins and his feelings lends the novel a three-dimensional quality so often lacking in novels about the antebellum south. The complexities of Robbins's character, set down early in the book, also set the tone for other characters, all of whom Jones depicts as caught up in an institution larger than themselves, a capitalism based cruelly, and solely, on the basis of skin color and flesh. There is a white sheriff determined not to own slaves but compelled by force of job to track down those who run away, and there are bounty hunters who can sympathize with their prey. Poor, landless, and often hungry, they understand the urge to flee for a better life.

And then there is Henry, who beats his slaves mercilessly even though he himself experienced the pain of the lash. Even when his father buys his freedom, he remains more closely aligned with Robbins, who demonstrated the Machiavellian principles and iron will necessary to strangle profit out of a plantation.

Jones has clearly done a tremendous amount of research to bring this time and place to life, but it never weighs heavily on ''The Known World." He narrates throughout with a compact, economical prose style that feels somewhat flat at first but grows more resonant as it accumulates details and a rhythm.

There are, though, occasional moments of lyrical flight, and in them Jones proves how much control he has over his writing. Early in the book, Henry lies dying while his wife and another woman sit by his bedside. Here is the moment he leaves this earth:

''About nine he fell asleep and woke not long after. His wife and Fern were discussing a Thomas Gray poem. He thought he knew the one they were talking about but as he formed some words to join the conversation, death stepped into the room and came to him: Henry walked up the steps into the tiniest of houses, knowing with each step that he did not own it, that he was only renting."

Perhaps it's this last detail -- the irony of struggling and killing for property during life when in the afterlife we have none -- that makes ''The Known World" such a painfully wise read. Jones imparts this wisdom with a patience and understatement that are nothing short of miraculous.

Such quietude in the face of an awful period of America's past puts the onus on the reader to feel, and we do. It is difficult to read this book without wishing we could change history; it is impossible to finish it without full awareness of how futile is that dream.

John Freeman is a writer in New York. His reviews have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Independent on Sunday, and The Washington Post Book World.

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