Review: Washington Black, Esi Edugyan

From the front cover and blurb, I had a feeling that Washington Black was going to be just my cup of tea. The Man Booker Prize nominated novel from Canadian author Esi Edugyan spans years and continents, from the atrocities of Faith Plantation in Barbados, to inspiring and unbelievable adventures on the high seas and in the Arctic, North America, London, Amsterdam and Morocco.

My favourite – and the most moving part – of the novel was definitely the first part which showed with an unflinching gaze the horrors of growing up as a slave on a sugar plantation. Washington’s apprenticeship with the eccentric inventor Titch is almost good to be true, and tinged with enough realities to be believable. And then Washington and Titch escape on a giant hot-air-balloon-flying-machine and everything changes…

While there’s no doubt that I thoroughly enjoyed Washington Black, I definitely felt increasingly disconnected from Washington as a character and narrator. It was almost as if the further away he went from home, the less I was able to understand and connect him, but I wonder if that might be the point. Still, Edugyan has a distinctly cool way of writing that I sometimes meant I felt I was missing the crux of how Washington was feeling or experiencing a moment.

A key disappointment for me was Washington’s relationship Tanna which was just a little understated and anticlimactic for me. I’m a romanticist at heart, ok! I wanted more drama and tension between them, and when they finally did get together I wanted to know more about their relationship.

Despite my criticisms, there was so much to love about Washington Black. I really enjoyed Wash’s narration coming from somewhere in the present, looking back on his life with a newfound knowledge and hindsight. There are lots of little places where this disparity between the events of young Washington and the thoughts of the present-day narrator make for some interesting divergences and pockets of tension, especially around the mysterious and enigmatic Tish. It’s a clever novel, and it’s subtle despite the outlandish adventures, and there’s certainly a mastery in that.

And, yes, there is an unfortunate unsatisfying ending that might frustrate more than it compels. In summary? The best part is at the beginning and as the stakes and adventures get bigger, some parts of the story and narrative fall apart a little.

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