When two English brothers take the helm of a Barbados sugar plantation, Washington Black – an eleven-year-old field slave – finds himself selected as personal servant to one of these men. The eccentric Christopher ‘Titch’ Wilde is a naturalist, explorer, scientist, inventor and abolitionist, whose single-minded pursuit of the perfect aerial machine mystifies all around him.
Titch’s idealistic plans are soon shattered and Washington finds himself in mortal danger. They escape the island together, but then then Titch disappears and Washington must make his way alone, following the promise of freedom further than he ever dreamed possible.
From the blistering cane fields of Barbados to the icy wastes of the Canadian Arctic, from the mud-drowned streets of London to the eerie deserts of Morocco, Washington Black teems with all the strangeness and mystery of life. Inspired by a true story, Washington Black is the extraordinary tale of a world destroyed and made whole again.
I can’t quite put my finger on exactly what it was about this one that I loved, but here are some of my thoughts…
It had a similar vibe to me as Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad (which I also loved), although it felt perhaps less tense to me. I think this was probably because of the use of the first-person past tense, which gives the sense of this being told as kind of a memoir and makes us feel like in the end it will work out for protagonist Wash. Similarly, while there was some brutality in the book it felt less impactful – maybe because the use of past tense removes the reader from it a bit?
On the topic of tense, I’m not always a fan of writing in first person, especially in present tense, but when it is past tense like in this case I feel like it can be so beautiful. I thought it totally worked in this case – the writing was wonderful, and almost haunting, and reminded me a bit of the writing in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, or Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.
Apart from clearly being a total sucker for a beautifully written ‘memoir’ novel, I really enjoyed the adventure and science aspects of this one. ‘Discovery’ was a strong theme through the book, both in terms of Titch’s inventions and the marine science Wash becomes involved in later in his story, but also in Wash’s discovery of the world, human nature, and himself. The combination of these gave the story a classic adventure/sci-fi Jules Verne kind of feel.
On a more serious note, I felt like Washington Black gives us a lot to think about in terms of privilege and what it means to be ‘an ally’ from a place of privilege. Titch clearly does not support the brutal treatment of the slaves on his brother’s plantation, but there are some really important and clever passages in the book that question his motivations and feelings – did he take Wash in to ‘save’ him? Or for his own benefit? And is his opposition to slavery about helping the m=people themselves, or about his own discomfort? Similarly, the effect of this change on Wash is also really interesting – he has been removed from the fields to a ‘safer’ life, but what does that mean for his identity? And where does he belong, when the rest of the world views him differently than Titch does?
So, that was my take on Washington Black: A bit of Colson Whitehead, meets Marilynne Robinson memoir-iness, with a twist of Jules Verne adventure, but also plenty to think about in relation to racism and privilege in today’s world. I definitely loved the writing and am keen to check out Esi Edugyan’s other work, and to see how this goes when the Man Booker winner is announced next week!
Would you recommend this to someone?
Yes! I gave this one 4 out of 5 Cloud-Cutter balloons and recommend it for fans of The Underground Railway, old school adventure, and gorgeous haunting prose.
The Underground Railway, Jules Verne, Colson Whitehead, Marilynne Robinson
My review of Washington Black was originally published over on the Bookish Escape Crate blog.
I received a free Bookish Escape Crate box in exchange for my review.
You can check out Washington Black on Goodreads here.