When I picked up Washington Black, the latest novel by Esi Edugyan, I prepared myself for a challenging story about slavery, violence, and injustice. What I got was something much more layered and original. There’s a reason this book has received the accolades it has: it is a surprising and outstanding book.
The story begins with an 11-year-old slave, George Washington (“Wash”) Black, on Faith plantation on the island of Barbados. Faith is run by Erasmus Wilde who is vicious and violent. His brother, Titch, is a scientist, naturalist, and abolitionist. When Titch arrives at the plantation to work on his hot air balloon (you heard that right) that he calls a cloud-cutter, Wash is assigned as Titch’s personal servant. Over time, Wash develops a trust for Titch and a complex friendship develops between them.
But this is just the beginning. Titch and Wash leave the island abruptly but Wash is left to find his own way after Titch later disappears without a trace. The adventure that follows takes Wash to the US, the Arctic, Nova Scotia, Europe, and Morocco. He learns about the world and himself while uncovering surprising, and sometimes painful, truths along the way.
Esi Edugyan is masterful at developing characters that are full yet flawed; even our protagonists are human and selfish, they make mistakes, hurt others, and desire understanding and forgiveness. The settings are nuanced yet striking, almost as if they are additional characters in the story. There are whole lives packed into this book but it never feels overwhelming or too much. Edugyan lovingly offers us a world of brotherhood, invention, discovery, and freedom.
The depth of Washington Black was what I enjoyed most; there are many layers to this story that the reader can peel back to discover its powerful messages. There is a robustness and bold yet subtle movement to this book that draws you in. Incorporating elements of fantasy, horror, history, and adventure, Washington Black is remarkable in its marriage of terror and beauty, weight and subtlety, heartbreak and hope.
I highly recommend this book to those who enjoy adventures, historical fiction, full character development, and multilayered plots. Or to anyone because it really has something for everyone.
Esi Edugyan can be found online at https://www.facebook.com/EsiEdugyan/.
Title: Washington Black
Author: Esi Edugyan
Pages: 352 pages
Publication Date: September 18, 2018
Tags: Historical fiction, women writers
My Rating: Highly recommended
Content information: Slavery, suicide, violence
For further reading:
Canada’s Esi Edugyan shortlisted for prestigious Man Booker Prize for Fiction for The Globe and Mail
Escaping Slavery in a Hot-Air Balloon by Colm Toibin for The New York Times
Esi Edugyan on why readers can’t get tired of books about slavery by Donna Bailey Nurse for Maclean’s
Novelist Esi Edugyan On Black Genius And What Comes After Slavery by Steve Inskeep for NPR
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan review – beautiful and beguiling by Arifa Akbar for The Guardian
Thanks to Esi Edugyan, Knopf, and NetGalley for the complimentary ARC in exchange for an honest review. This post contains affiliate links; I write what I like.