Reading Washington Black by Esi Edugyan was like eating a big bag of sweets. Some were good, some not so good. And after gorging myself on the first half, I found the second half a bit too much take.
The first half of Washington Black was unputdownable. I loved the engaging voice of the child narrator. His early life on the plantation was brutal yet fascinating. Edugyan included some strong, descriptive passages in these early chapters and I found the secondary characters just as intriguing.
Washington’s fear and mistrust of everyone was more than understandable, but the constant tension built up by this fear with every change or arrival of a new character eventually lost it’s impact by overuse. The tension was continually being built up but never quite realised….although perhaps, this is what it’s like to live in a state of slavery in Washington’s world.
For me the tale started to lose it’s way when Wash and Titch took off to the Arctic in search of Titch’s father. It reminded me of what happened when I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things where ‘something went a little off kilter’. I began to doubt my narrator, I became sceptical and even a little cynical. I became aware of the writer and felt manipulated at times. I was being asked to go on a journey that had lost its believability and maybe even lost its way.
Billed as a coming of age story or a life after slavery story, neither felt predominant to me. With such a strong start on the plantation, I expected to be taken on the struggle as Wash’s came to terms with his newfound freedom. But I never got a strong sense of what life was really like for a freed slave in western ‘civilisation’ – the injustice, unfairness, the everyday prejudices, burdens and guilt. The existential angst wasn’t fully realised.
And Wash’s personal growth felt too much too soon – it was too big a jump from uneducated child slave to scientific, emotionally intelligent young man. The soaring heights of the first half floundered and crash landed.
Titch’s emotional arc didn’t make sense to me either. He had me right up to the point of his disbelief/fear/hope/joy at being reunited with his father after thinking that he was dead. I was incredibly moved by this exchange. Titch obviously had his own struggle with personal freedom, yet his sudden disappearance was the first moment when I felt caught in the author’s web.
There were a few tiny touches of surrealism or mysticism which were left unexplained and unresolved. They added a fable-like element to the story, and maybe that’s were the problem lies. In the end I wasn’t sure if this was an allegory or an historical fiction, adventure story. I felt like I was getting mixed messages by the end.
I will certainly read more books by Edugyan – when her writing soared, it dazzled and some of her minor characters were so well-drawn and vivid, that I was disappointed when the story moved on without them. Potential and possibility abounds.
Giller Prize winner
Man Booker shortlist
Longlisted for the 2020 International Dublin Literary Award.