Review: Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

washington black cover Washington Black [2018] – ★★★ 

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2018, Washington Black has certainly been on many readers’ radar. This is the tale of Washington Black, a young boy who is initially a slave on a plantation in Barbados. This is where we begin the journey: the year is 1830 and the setting is Faith Plantation, Barbados. Young Washington (or Wash) is raised by Big Kit, a female slave, who looks after him. Like the rest, Wash witnesses the death of his old master, and sees how his new master – cruel Erasmus Wilde – takes control of the farm. Wash then becomes an assistant to the eccentric brother of Erasmus – Christopher Wilde or just Titch. What follows is the adventure which Wash never imagined (but we, probably, all did). In fact, as an adventure, the story is predictable, rather boring, at times too unbelievable, and, strangely, unexciting. Edugyan introduced several exciting and even original plot lines (such as scientific endeavours), but all of them are dropped before they are allowed to continue. The characters are rather caricaturish and shallow, and even though the beginning and the writing are strong, the issue is still that there is nothing fresh in this story (it follows a very familiar journey). The author has virtually nothing original or fascinating to add to an already long and established (“done-to-death”) literary theme of slave liberation, and hardship and discrimination experienced by a community outcast living in the early nineteenth century.

Washington Black should be the perfect book for me. I love adventure, character-driven historical fiction, and stories set in exotic locations. I also cherish books on the history of slavery, and some of my favourite books include those that focus or reference William Wilberforce, a prominent campaigner to stop slave trade. Washington Black also makes a strong start. We are introduced to the ways of Faith Plantation and have to read about the hardship of people who toil endlessly on the farm. The beginning pulls you in, and Edugyan evidently wants to shock her readers with the practices of the new owner Erasmus Wilde. It is as though Edugyan wants us to feel the maximum sympathy for the main character Wash, and we do.

So, the beginning is something which is nothing new, recalling Beloved [1987] or Twelve Years a Slave [1853] in the way it portrays the lives on a slave plantation. The one thing which makes the story really intriguing is the scientific inventions theme, which Edugyan introduced. Titch would like to assemble and try out a cloud-cutter, an ingenious flying construction, which is like a “wicker-and-wood gondola…its oars stretching like antennae into the sky, its four odd wings creaking like rudders in the wind” [Edugyan, 2018: 129], and Wash is “hired” to draw and help with calculations. This atmosphere of scientific exploration (together with the plantation life) in the nineteenth century is what makes the story so fresh and interesting in its beginning. It is especially fascinating to discover the world through the eyes of this boy who has only seen one farm in Barbados his entire life. Alas, this does not last. The exciting plot line about the cloud-cutter (air adventure) lasts only a number of pages, before it is abandoned for a sea-adventure. In turn, the sea-adventure lasts even less before the action is transferred to another part of the world, and so forth the novel goes in search of something indefinable. Every new and exciting plot line is abruptly abandoned and the message of “a young man in hardship” is needlessly repeated too many times. The result is that, soon after the second part of the book, the story slides into dullness.

To make her plot less blunt, Edugyan sometimes entices us with slightly macabre things, for example, she talks about strange professions of her characters, marine life, and the nature of dead bodies and twins. The story is also in a way about running away from bad persons, but none of these or other things sufficiently intrigue or provide tension. We are dragged through Nova Scotia, the UK and Morocco for seemingly no reason than that these locations are “exotic” and they will give the story its “pump”. Moreover, Wash’s story is not convincing or believable enough. There are just too many coincidences and lucky meetings there, which, frankly, do not make sense, for example, meetings happenings all of sudden after years and across continents. In addition, in the second part of the book, there is this story about one male community outcast making a connection with others, and especially one girl who sees something special in him. It is all exasperatingly unimaginative and banal.

Washington Black is a well-written novel, but it is also the one which chooses to describe actions and feelings, over showing and letting the reader to absorb the atmosphere. There is no real insight provided into anything, and the overall message of the book is painfully unclear. I do not quote from the book because I did not find any quotation particularly striking, but I guess I liked: “our bodies know truths our minds neglect” [Edugyan, 2018: 172], and “as with most loves, it was shadowy, and painful, and confusing” [Edugyan, 2018: 211].

The characters are drawn in a rather caricature and shallow way in Washington Black. The reader is constantly forced to feel sorry for Washington, and that is understandable, but the characters of Edgar Farrow, Medwin Harris, and Mr Peter offer little insight too. We hardly get to know anything about them, and, once again – the beginning of the novel offers more insight into the characters. That is where we are introduced to Christopher Wild (“Titch”), Erasmus Wilde and Mr Philip. They become a kind of “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” of that first part of the novel. Titch and Mr Philip are interesting characters, and their later actions give much food for thought.

Washington Black is a very well-written novel with a good enough story at the start and a very sympathetic main character at the centre. However, that excitement (including the adventure surrounding scientific discoveries) only lasts as far as the first part of the book. The story soon drops its southern plantation horror and Jules Verne charm and becomes an indefinable, banal and tedious journey. Even though it has a vivid voice, it lacks both boldness and originality. It does not work as an engrossing and exciting adventure, but it also does not work as anything else. After Washington Black’s clumsy attempt at plotting, there is a strong temptation to re-read either David Copperfield [1850] or Twelve Years a Slave [1853].

5 thoughts on “Review: Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

  1. I found this so disappointing that I abandoned it at an early stage. Interesting that you mention Beloved – because the opening scenes have a similar feel I couldn’t help drawing comparison between them, too, and that most certainly didn’t work to this one’s advantage. While Beloved made me believe in the characters totally, making me experience their suffering, Edugyan’s characters never rose above stereotype and caricature – it all felt like something written purely with the mind, not with the heart. And when an author has to tell you what the main character is feeling every few lines, then she’s clearly not mastered the art of showing…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are right, and I completely agree. I think some people do not want to criticise books with liberal messages in them. They just want to show how much they love them, but I think it is also important to call a spade a spade, and the second half of this book is just no good.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I totally agree. I’ve felt for the last several years that a lot of authors are so busy showing off their liberal credentials they’ve forgotten they have to make their characters believable and their stories enjoyable. And a lot of reviewers seem more interested in praising the message than assessing the quality…

        Liked by 1 person

  2. What a thorough review and from reading it I can feel the potential and disappointment you felt as you made your way through the book. I’ve seen this book everywhere and have heard so many sing it’s praises I’ve been on my library wait list to check it out.

    But with you’re observations about what made the book appealing at first but is abandoned is disappointing. The scientific part sounds fun and unique but then I wonder why the author didn’t manage to follow through to the end?

    Maybe I will suspend my library hold for a few months and go to Twelve Years a Slave instead. David Copperfield is my favorite Dickens so there’s that too. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I am puzzled that so many people loved it, but that means that there is a big chance you will like it as well. For me, as the book progressed it got worse – duller and duller, and the ending just takes the crown in the underwhelming experience field.

      I am not sure why the author ends her unique plot lines to then write about something mundane. I think she really wants to be “the jack of all narratives, the master of none”, if I can rephrase the popular saying like that 🙂

      Some people loved that the book is set in different locations, but it is easy to set a book in different locations – it is more difficult to sustain the fascination to the very end, and the book simply does not do that.

      Like

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