Book Review: Washington Black

Despite my love of having debates and conversations regarding race and diversity, you may be surprised to know that I actually don’t enjoy reading books on slavery and the like. The genre really affects me in ways I can’t shake, I can’t read it as a work of fiction, I actually feel a deep connection to the characters and the events which occur to them. The book Roots, for example, has been on my reading list for years, I just can’t bring myself to read it and I suppose you can call it a privilege to be able to put it off. Despite that, I decided to pick this book up because it has received so much critical acclaim, I would be doing myself an injustice if I didn’t give it a chance. So! This week on the blog, we share our review of Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black.

You were more concerned that slavery should be a moral stain upon white men than by the actual damage it wreaks on black men.

Synopsis:

The novel follows the life and journey of the young slave George Washington Black,”Wash“- while on the plantation a stroke of luck he becomes the manservant for the master’s brother, Christopher Wilde- “Titch”, who happens to be an abolitionist among other things. He enlists Wash’s help to help him in any way he requires, as he’s trying to build a flying machine. Unfortunately, Wash witnesses a man commit suicide and a bounty gets put on Wash’s head and Titch then risks his status in order to save the little boy. The book then follows Wash through to adulthood, as Titch disappears, leaving Wash to fend for himself and on a journey to find the man who changed his life, in a world that doesn’t see him as equal, let alone free.

Break it Down:

It’s so interesting how, despite Wash being a slave, he lived such a very colourful life and though it’s plagued with deep rooted racism and violence it’s also full of sadness and isolation. His story takes him from Barbados, to Canada, to England and ultimately to Egypt all in search of Titch. Wash tries to settle into a “normal” life, but with a ransom on his life, being an “escaped” slave and the fact that he has a pretty visible facial scar due to an explosion of one of Titch’s gas canisters he can’t seem to settle into a real life. Despite his talent, Wash can’t seem to let go of his desire to find Titch even though everyone thinks he has died. Wash believes his life is meant for more than running away from the plantation which is all he knows, but his life only begins to open up when he also begins to “live”, which isn’t an easy thing to do.There were many sections in the book that explained and painted an image for the reader which didn’t really “go” anywhere, but the author was setting a scene. The ultimate build up of the bounty hunter ultimately finding Wash (it was eluded to numerous times in the book, so the reader fully felt Wash’s stress over it), was initially somewhat disappointing because he catches Wash unaware in the local bar, is super threatening to him- yet nothing happens. It’s only later, he then attacks Wash in an alley and a fight ensues, leaving Wash no choice but to fight for his life, hit him with a pipe and run- not knowing whether he killed him or not.

I really enjoyed the love story between Wash and Tanna, they both share a love for drawing and nature and unbeknownst to Wash when he meets her- her father is his biggest hero. She becomes a real centring force in Washington’s life and made him feel like his facial disfigurement didn’t matter and didn’t affect her love for him. I really liked that and I also loved that there was no real issue between the two of them, they were just connected and despite the issues surrounding them, especially regarding race and class- their love for each other never suffers or wavers. Meeting Tanna for Wash’s character is definitely a major, positive change in his life and in some ways gave him something to live for.

Negatives?:

The book’s conclusion fully confused and disappointed me, I didn’t understand what the author was eluding to and it left me scratching my head- I actually had to read the last few paragraphs again just to be sure I understood it was the end. Throughout the whole book the build up to reconnecting Washington and Titch is clearly the penultimate event, yet when he does find Titch in the middle f the Egyptian desert. All he’s met of the man he knew as a little boy, is a seemingly crazed loner attempting to recreate what he had with Washington, with another little boy. And the final words of the book didn’t make me feel warm and fuzzy or even happy that the book had come to a very uneventful end- I wasn’t a fan of that.

Would I recommend the book?:

Yes, it’s so well written that it pains the scenery and twist and turns of Washington Black’s life so very well. Definitely a life well-lived. I can see why this book received a lot of acclaim; the way Esi Edugyan weaves Washington’s story for the reader, hooking you and instantly you are in his perspective. It is a wonderful book.

The RnR Rating:

3.5 out of 5 stars.

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