Review: Washington Black

Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black was my 7th Man Booker longlist title (of 13), and my 3rd read from the shortlist (of 6). So I’m officially halfway through. Washington Black was just released in the US last week, so I chose this one next based on availability.

washingtonblackAbout the book: Wash is a young slave on Faith Plantation in Barbados. His life is hard, but he’s got a friend, and he will follow where she leads. At least, until the new master’s brother visits, and selects Wash as his new assistant in scientific endeavors. Removed from the life of a field worker, new opportunities open for Wash– though he is still another man’s property. Titch is against slavery morally, but his attempts to remove Wash from hideous treatment in the sugar fields does not necessarily lead Wash to a better life. Circumstances lead Titch to escape Faith in a flying ship– a “Cloud-cutter.” Wash leaves with him, beginning a grand and terrifying journey through a harsh world that shows little respect for him, no matter how learned Titch has made him.

Washington Black is one of those books that I was happier to reach the end of than I was during any point while reading. The first section is a promising introduction to the story, detailing life on the Barbados plantation and ending with the odd pair– Titch and Wash– setting off through the sky in their own invention. But from there, the story wanders a bit aimlessly as years pass before Wash finds a sort of goal to work toward as well as the additional emotional complexity of a forbidden love. But much of the middle sections– indeed, much of the entire book– relies on telling rather than showing, as Wash seems to be relating his adventures from some point in the future. From this perspective, Wash notes moments of confusion or misunderstanding in his younger self, though he offers little in the way of explanation or growth that he may have gained through further experience.

“I was young and terrified and confused, it is true. But it is also true that the nature of what happened isn’t fixed; it shifts and warps with the years.”

I had two main issues with this book, issues that indicate this simply wasn’t the right book for me rather than that the novel is flawed. First, this is a very specific story. The events of Wash’s life are probably not events that have happened to any other people or characters ever in existence– and I found little to relate to or to learn from such specificity of experience nearly 200 years past. It’s not a broad look at culture or personality so much as a close-up of one man’s suffering. Some of the underlying messages might apply more widely, but the generalization of the underlying messages was my other issue with this story– I didn’t find that Washington Black had anything new to say on the injustices of slavery it highlighted. A white man taking credit for a black man’s work. A black man taking the blame for a white man’s actions. A white man trying to end slavery at least for one child, by giving him tools the world will not allow him to use. These are important pages in history, but I’ve encountered them before, in other stories. I found it frustrating to read such a unique tale to find only familiar morals.

“I felt Titch was trying to liberate himself from me. And again he would do it under the guise of granting me safety.”

But there is no mistaking the competency of Edugyan’s prose or the intelligence behind her words. There are bits and pieces of this story that will stay with me long after the plot fades, abstract ideas and emotions.

“There was but a thread between life and death, and he had stumbled blamelessly onto the wrong side of it.”

I’ll also remember the scientific aspects of the story: primarily the cloud-cutter and Ocean House. I didn’t look too closely at the premise of Washington Black before diving in, but with such a focus on science so early in the story I was hoping for something a little more zany, like The Underground Railroad. I knew there was no magical realism aspect to Washington Black, but I was disappointed with how quickly the cloud-cutter seemed to fade from its pages. I think the biggest failure of this novel is its hesitance to follow the science to more adventurous conclusions; Edugyan introduces some fascinating concepts, but lets them linger in the background of Wash’s life as he turns his attention instead to the scientist: Titch.

I probably would never have read this book if it hadn’t turned up on the Man Booker longlist the year that I decided to read every nominated book. Its spot on the shortlist led me to pick it up even sooner. But because I did find and read it because of the Man Booker longlist, I can’t help but compare my experience reading it to my similarly disappointing experience with Warlight. Though I preferred Ondaatje’s prose to Edugyan’s, I was pleased that Edugyan offered more directionality of narrative– and yet despite these minor differences, I spent much of my time with both books waiting for a reason to care about the main character and closing the book in the end without any real sense of connection.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I don’t regret having read this book, but I don’t think I’ve gained anything from reading it beyond crossing off another title on my trek through the longlist. My goal is to finish reading the shortlist before the winner is announced (I still have The Overstory, Milkman, and The Long Take to read), and then wrap up the longlist titles I have left (Sabrina, Normal People, and In Our Mad and Furious City). Next up for me will be The Overstory, which is really the only title I have left that I have doubts about enjoying. If I can get through that one, I should have no trouble with the rest.

In lieu of further recommendations, I’m linking the rest of my Man Booker reviews (so far) here, in order of favoritism: Everything Under, The Water Cure, From a Low and Quiet Sea, The Mars Room, Warlight, and Snap.

Is there a book you’re glad you read even though you didn’t enjoy reading it? Why did you feel that way?


The Literary Elephant

10 thoughts on “Review: Washington Black”

  1. I read the first 10% last night and already the thing that’s jumping out at me is that Wash’s first-person narration vocabulary is SO incongruous with his background??? Like Edugyan’s writing is undeniably solid but unless Wash leaves this plantation and enrolls in school immediately, I’m just not buying the narration style. But we shall see. Great review! It’s disappointing to hear that the underlying themes and morals are so basic but I’m glad there were some highlights as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh yeah, I had that same impression early on, but I guess once I got used to the style I forgot that I was questioning it. I do still think it’s a stretch for the writing to fit Wash’s life by the end of the novel. That was probably one of the things that contributed to my telling-rather-than-showing impression- I never had much sense of seeing through Wash’s eyes. But there were definitely moments that struck me, and I think an appreciation for Edugyan’s control of language contributed to that. I hope there will be highlights for you also!

      Liked by 1 person

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