Washington Black – by Esi Edugyan – book review

Awarded three stars on Goodreads, which might be a little low since the book contains some powerful and deeply emotional descriptions. But other sections seemed completely obscure to the narrative flow.

This is the story of a young male, George Washington Black, born a slave on a plantation in Barbados. An orphan, the only family he knows is Big Kit, a female slave who takes “Wash” under her wing.

At the start, this novel excels at describing the way Wash (no doubt representing other enslaved people) views whites around him — always aware of his own life-and-death vulnerability, understanding their unpredictability, and with a complete lack of trust in even those who show kindness. Author Esi Edugyan writes remarkable descriptions to illustrate how dramatically the institution of slavery affected the psychology of those who were enslaved.

Wash turns out to be both lucky AND smart. His owner’s brother, a would-be scientist nicknamed Titch, selects Wash to accompany him to an expedition, where Wash’s natural drawing skills are soon put to work illustrating all manner of living creatures. And this random act of selection enables the boy to escape the brutal world of field work and, instead, develop his hungry brain.

But when a sudden death occurs, Titch and Wash must take off immediately on a far-flung adventure that eventually takes Wash first to Virginia, then the Arctic and Nova Scotia and eventually to Europe and Africa. The story follows Wash’s life for about 10 years, as he learns to navigate the world as a young black man, with all the prejudices inherent in society.

Usually I don’t find male authors who create female protagonists or female authors who create male protagonists completely believable. But in this case, the author, who is female, does an admirable job writing the voice of Wash. So, then why didn’t I like the book more?

The way the narrative unfolds began to feel farfetched for me. All the world traveling Wash does (and still no older than 20 years), at a period in the 19th century when travel to distant locations was uncommon and expensive, began to feel unbelievable. Where, after all, was all this travel money coming from? If, however, I think about the novel as more fable-like, illustrating the potential but untapped capability of enslaved people who only needed life to present a single opportunity, then I come away from the read more satisfied.

My other complaint concerns the ending, which I found deeply disappointing. As a reader, you spend a good portion of the book watching events build to a pivotal denouement, only to have that moment fall flat. And then the book ends with complete ambiguity.

Esi Edugyan

I still recommend the story, which is interesting. And Wash is a memorable character. But if I had been the editor, I would have pushed the author to revisit a few of the plot developments and definitely rewrite the ending.

More about Canadian novelist, Esi Edugyan.