‘Washington Black’ by Esi Edugyan

Washington Black

Fiction – hardcover; Serpent’s Tail; 432 pages; 2018.

If you like your historical fiction with a good dose of adventure and a smidgen of romance then you really must put Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black on your list.

Shortlisted for both this year’s Man Booker Prize and the Giller Prize, this fast-paced story follows the life and times of George Washington Black, a young slave rescued from a Barbados sugar plantation by an unexpected source: the plantation owner’s younger brother.

“Titch” Wilde, who is a secret abolitionist and a mad inventor, needs someone of a certain weight to fly in his “cloud cutter” — one of the world’s first hot-air balloons — which he is building. Step forward 11-year-old “Wash”, who is taken from the care of Big Kit, the woman he doesn’t realise is his mother, and promptly elevated to Titch’s personal servant and confidante, changing the course of his young life forever.

Under Titch’s care, Wash not only discovers he has an extraordinary talent for drawing, he embarks on a wild journey that traverses oceans and continents in a bid to escape the slave catcher who wants him returned to Barbados.

A dizzying page-turner that takes in scientific polar exploration, the windswept beaches of Nova Scotia, the aristocratic manor houses of 19th century London, the canals of Amsterdam and the deserts of Morocco, this is a true adventure story that brims with menace and tension and love.

But it’s not a perfect novel. There are paradigm shifts, which seem to come out of nowhere and are disorienting for the reader. Some of these shifts feel too far-fetched to be believable and this serves to ruin the perceived authenticity of Wash’s tale. And then, when Titch disappears from the narrative at about the half-way point, suddenly the heart of the story — the mysterious and intriguing relationship between him and Wash — is gone: it’s like taking a cake out of the oven too early so that it collapses.

That said, Washington Black is a brilliant example of terrific storytelling. The characters are vivid and well drawn, the dialogue is authentic, the setting and period details pitch perfect. It’s an original and audacious plot-driven novel. And much like Edugyan’s previous novel, Half Blood Blues, it is a truly entertaining read. I enjoyed it immensely — but I had to suspend belief to do so.

This is my 1st book for 2018 Shadow Giller Prize.

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28 thoughts on “‘Washington Black’ by Esi Edugyan

  1. I absolutely love love loved Half Blood Blues… I championed it to win the Shadow Giller that year I loved it so much. This one is good, but, IMHO, not as good as Half Blood Blues.

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  2. I wondered, too, about a couple of events in the book being far-fetched. However, I enjoyed the story well enough that I didn’t worry about it.
    I also liked that it was a story about a slave that focused on themes other than slavery itself (although, there was that, too).

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  3. I found that there are a number of different levels of perception that could be employed when reading Washington Black and if one is reading a flat out story that much is missed. Symbol and religion the use of recurring motifs the directionless time affords are so incorporated into this novel as to be missed unless one slows down. I cannot see what I am typing on the screen so will end my comment here other than I see no way to improve Washington Black but I see many different ways I could enjoy a novel written by a hand that will stay in literary works for quite a long time.

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    • Thanks for your comment, Dianne. You are probably right in that you could interpret this novel on many different levels. I’m sure if I re-read it and paid close attention I may well notice the recurring motifs and symbols you mention here. I admit to racing through it, swept away by the adventure element of it, which I really loved.

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  4. I loved the adventure of it too and didn’t stop to think more deeply while I read it. However, Wash could never have ‘grown up’ in the way he did if Titch had still been in the picture, so it was necessary for them to part at some stage I think. Must read Half-Blood Blues

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    • Good point. I guess Wash needed to learn to stand on his own two feet without Titch but even that surprised me because he was black and horribly disfigured, so I would have expected him to be outcast and ostracised. Instead he seemed to get by okay…

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  5. I was relieved this wasn’t a (yet again) slave story based purely on mistreatment. Not that I am trying to invalidate that piece of history, I just think we’ve read much of that story. This one, at least, was refreshing. I, too, valued their relationship.

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    • Yes, this isn’t a strict slave story but a what-happens-to-a-slave-on-the-run story. It’s also a coming of age story as much as it is an adventure story.

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    • The cover art is gorgeous. The gold on the dust jacket is foiled and the endpapers feature a block print of a sugar plantation in green and white. It’s a really lovely book to hold and own.

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  6. Pingback: The 2018 Giller Prize shortlist – Reading Matters

  7. How do you feel about an adventure novel being shortlisted for the Man Booker? What literary novel was left out for it. You describe all I dislike about historical fiction – invented characters serving no discernable purpose.

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    • I don’t think an adventure and literary fiction are mutually exclusive, Bill. This book is a prime example; yes, the story and Washington’s adventures might be breathlessly fast-paced but Edugyan is also exploring / examining an existential fear of freedom, for Wash really struggles to comprehend life beyond his life as a slave. He was born into slavery and knows no different, but at the same time the author is also showing us how he isn’t really free: the colour of his skin, the scar on his face, the bounty on his head limit his ability to move freely through the world. This is nicely contrasted with other characters that Wash meets along the way, all white and male, who can pretty well do what they like. And he’s not an invented character: apparently he’s “inspired by” a black slave rescued by a posh Englishman, who emigrated to Australia!

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      • Thankyou for such a comprehensive answer. I looked her up, she’s certainly highly awarded. We have been discussing Toni Morrison elsewhere and that seems to me a better starting point to investigate the experience of slavery but I’m certainly willing to accept Eduguyan is an accomplished literary writer.

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  8. Fortunately we do not have to choose between Half-Blood Blues and Washington Black. I’m not sure which I would choose and would have to reread HBB first, I suppose. Regardless, I think that there is a lot going on in this novel beneath the surface of story, so that one can read with an eye to the crafting or with an eye to the adventure, but perhaps, as you’ve said, there are elements which seem strange which you’re mainly enthralled by the story. It may have been in the interview with her on the New York Times Book Review (I can’t remember where I heard it) but Edugyan discusses how bizarre some of her research elements were, “stranger than fiction” but, at the time, I hadn’t read the novel and don’t recall what she referred to specifically.

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    • Be interesting to know what she’s referring to specifically. I know she based Wash on a real character who escaped to Australia and was taken in by a posh English family, though I think it was more something that inspired her to create this story rather than rooted in anything real / factual. It is an amazing book and the more I think about it the more I think I should probably read it again because in the first reading I was swept away by the adventure element but as you and others have pointed out there are multiple layers to the story and it would be good to delve a little deeper.

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  9. Pingback: Shadow Giller: Washington Black by Esi Edugyan – Consumed by Ink

  10. I like the sound of “terrific storytelling”, so I shall have a look for this title. Sounds a bit like history overlaid with some fantasy which calls for you “to suspend belief” – traces of Whitehead’s Underground Railroad? I also really enjoyed Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues, so, I trust her writing voice!

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    • I haven’t read Underground Railroad, though I have a copy in my TBR, so I can’t comment on any similarities between the two. (I think this novel is more about newfound “freedom” rather than slavery.) If you liked HBB and like her writing voice, I’m sure this one won’t disappoint.

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  11. Pingback: The 2018 Shadow Giller Prize winner – Reading Matters

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