Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Washington Black - Esi Edugyan

I first read Esi Edugyan in 2012, coming rather late to her second novel Half-Blood Blues, the story of three black jazz musicians who find themselves trapped in World War II Paris when Hitler’s army overruns the city. That one turned out to be one of my favorite books of 2012 (it was published in 2011), convincing me that Edugyan was a writer I wanted to watch. Although it had been seven years between 2004’s The Second Life of Samuel Tyne and Half-Blood Blues, I really didn’t expect that it would be another seven years before Edugyan would publish her third novel. I was wrong, and now, unless she changes that pattern, I suppose we have something new to look forward to from Edugyan in 2025. 

Washington Black opens on an 1830s Barbados sugar plantation being run by the eldest son of an eccentric British family that enjoys the plantations profits without being much aware of, or even much caring about, its day-to-day operations. The book’s narrator is an eleven-year-old slave boy called George Washington Black, an outcast child who seems to suffer as much at the hands of his fellow slaves as he does from anyone else on the plantation. Wash, as he will come to be known, only survived his early childhood because Big Kit, a female slave who matches her nickname, made sure that he had enough to eat and a safe place to sleep. But now Wash is eleven and expected to carry a full load in his master’s fields. 

The drudgery and exhaustion Washington Black experiences every day is soul crushing, but the young slave learns to endure it, all the time living in fear that he might inadvertently do something to displease Erasmus Wilde, the sadistic plantation owner who delights in seeing his slaves tortuously punished for even the smallest infraction. Then the young slave’s world unexpectedly changes for the better when the owner’s much kinder brother “Titch” chooses him as personal assistant in a series of scientific studies the man is performing in the Barbados. Astounded by Wash’s mind and artistic abilities, “Titch” soon realizes that Wash has become an indispensable part of his project and the two become fast friends. The only question now is whether or not “Titch” will be able to protect the boy from the wrath of Erasmus and the jealousy of his fellow slaves who resent Wash’s escape from the fields.

Esi Edugyan
Washington Black’s friendship with “Titch” Wilde will define the rest of his life, a life that will largely be spent fleeing the bounty hunter who is determined to bring him back to the Barbados plantation he almost accidentally escapes from. Wash, though, does ultimately make a place for himself in the world, even finding the woman of his dreams along the way, as he makes his way  from the plantation to Virginia, the Arctic, Nova Scotia, England, and finally to Morocco. 

Bottom Line: Language-wise, Washington Black is a beautifully written piece of historical fiction, so it is easy enough to see why it won the Giller Prize in 2018 (making Edugyan only the third writer to win it twice) and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. However, the novel’s narrative progression seems to be rather the opposite of the expected path that moves a plot toward its climax near the end of the book. In fact, the opposite happens in Washington Black, with the bulk of the book’s tension and action taking place in its first two-thirds followed by a gradual winding down to an underwhelming ending. But despite that disappointment, Washington Black is still a book worth exploring, one that I am happy to have read.

6 comments:

  1. I think I'd like Half-Blood Blues more than I would this one. The plot of that one just sounds more interesting to me.

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    1. IMO, Half-Blood Blues is the better book. It's much more realistic and suspenseful than this new one. Washington Black is more fable than anything else.

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  2. Lark beat me to it--Half-Blood Blues really caught my interest!

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    1. You know, I had kind of forgotten just how good that book was. Maybe I should go back and pull that old review out for a re-post. (I don't like to do that too often because it feels like cheating.)

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  3. I've never heard of this author, but her books sound like ones I would enjoy. I'll have to check her out. Thanks for the heads-up! I'm always happy to discover new authors :)

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    1. She's not exactly prolific, but everything she's written has been well receive and rewarded. She's Canadian, and that may be part of the reason she hasn't become better known in this country. I'm always surprised that so few Canadian writers are all that well known in this country; that just seems wrong. Makes me wonder what we are missing out on.

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