Well, let me tell you…
It starts in Barbados in 1830, when the plantation master’s brother comes to visit. “Titch” asks for the “use” of the boy, George Washington Black (Wash), to assist him with the cloud-cutter he is assembling. This is where Titch and Wash’s complicated relationship starts. A relationship that is more fully explored in Marcie’s review at Buried in Print: “Through the lens of this relationship, Edugyan considers power dynamics and privilege in personal relationships…”
How could he have treated me so, he who congratulated himself on his belief that I was his equal? I had never been his equal. To him, perhaps, any deep acceptance of equality was impossible. He saw only those who were there to be saved, and those who did the saving.
Here, also, is where the adventure begins. An adventure that may at times be hard to swallow, as is pointed out by Kim in her review at Reading Matters: “Some of these shifts feel too far-fetched to be believable and this serves to ruin the perceived authenticity of Wash’s tale.”
The story takes us from the heat of Barbados to the chill of the Arctic, from the salt wind of Nova Scotia to the drizzle of England and the deserts of Morocco. It begins as a desperate escape from slave hunters, and ends in an obsessive search for a man.
I thought how Titch had risked everything for me. I knew he had preserved my person despite the death of his own flesh and blood, and I knew, too, how strange it felt to be alive, and whole, and astonishingly worth saving.
Along the way, Wash has discovered that he is artistically talented. While in Nova Scotia, he develops a strong interest in sea creatures, and goes down to the beach each morning to sketch them.
The tide pools were most alive at first light. The hazy air seemed to gild all that lay within, the anemones glowing pink as human flesh, their tentacles open and pleading. Small soft-shelled crabs with lively little eyes, and sometimes a sea pen, its quills magisterial. Some days, if I waded farther out, I would find pansies or green sea urchins, large crabs, polyps magenta with toxins.
This serves him well when he meets a well-known scientist and his daughter. They recruit him to help collect samples to take back with them to England.
The creature shot up from its rock, its orange arms boiling all around it, the suckers very white. Its gaze seemed to churn up out of its soft mantle and burn through me, seeing, I suppose, the sad rigidity of a boy, the uselessness of his hard, inflexible bones. I stared at the bulb of its pendulous head, the crags that made it look ancient, and a hot, glorious feeling rushed through me, a bright, radiating hope.
Wash becomes interested in coming up with a way of keeping the specimens alive while on display, for others to learn from and enjoy. “Could she not, I thought, be brought to England alive, to be seen as the breathing miracle she was?”
But in all this time, his past continues to haunt him. As he sorts through his memories of Big Kit and Titch, the tragedy at the plantation and what got him to where he is today, he longs for resolution, a place to call home. To belong. To mean something. To leave his mark on the world.
As I stared into the makeshift tank, watching her [the ailing octopus], a strangeness came over me: I began to feel that everything I put my hand to ended just this way, in ashes. I had been a slave, I had been a fugitive, I had been extravagantly abandoned in the Arctic as though trapped in some strange primal dream, and I had survived it only to let the best of my creations be taken from me… And I felt then I sudden urge to reject it, to cast all of this away, as if the great effort it was taking, and the knowledge that it would never in the end be mine, obliterated its worth. I looked at the octopus, and I saw not the miraculous animal but my own slow, relentless extinction.
History, adventure, science, and love help bring together an enjoyable tale that never feels overshadowed by its messages.
Like Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing (which won the 2016 Giller Prize and was also nominated for the Man Booker and the Women’s Prize for Fiction), Washington Black has been getting a lot of attention as a nominee of both the Giller and the Man Booker. (Which sometimes makes it harder to review – what can one say that hasn’t already been said?) Other blogger reviews include: Lonesome Reader, Elle Thinks, and Laura Tisdall. If I’ve left anyone out, feel free to leave a link to your review in the comments!
Quill & Quire: “Patrick Crean, Edugyan’s Canadian publisher and founder of the HarperCollins imprint Patrick Crean Editions, says the runaway-slave narrative resonates widely, not only because the search for freedom is reflected in contemporary life but also because of the importance of diversity. “We’re in a time of radically rethinking who we are in the world,” says Crean. “Historical fiction isn’t just pure entertainment.”
Colm Toibin in The New Yorker: “The Canadian novelist Esi Edugyan has other ideas, however. She is determined that the fate of Washington Black will not be dictated by history, that the novel instead will give him permission to soar above his circumstances and live a life that has been shaped by his imagination, his intelligence and his rich sensibility. He is not a pawn in history so much as a great noticer in time, with astonishing skill at capturing the atmosphere in a room, matched by his talent with pencil and sketchbook. He is a born artist, and someone who attracts people to him. He is also a lost soul who moves through the novel as though in search of some distant, sorrowful notion of home.”
Ron Charles in The Washington Post: “But most marvelous of all are the marine creatures that capture his imagination and his artistic eye. What is more unearthly than the bodies of jellyfish “in a furnace of colour” or the mercurial limbs of the octopus? As a brilliant black man in a ferocious white culture, Wash comes to see himself as one of these exotic marine animals, thriving only in the most precarious conditions, wondering if he could create a refuge for them or himself.“