WASHINGTON BLACK by Esi Edugyan
Knopf, September 2018
This is the Man Booker title that I was the most trepidatious about picking up this year, not because I doubted its quality, but just because there is nothing about a nineteenth century Caribbean and North American-set historical fiction adventure tale that appeals to me. So with that said, I guess I did enjoy this more than I expected to… just not enough to really understand its inclusion on the Booker shortlist over more structurally innovative and intellectually stimulating titles.
This book’s greatest asset ironically ended up being a detriment for me, and that was the fact that it’s incredibly well-written. The thing that immediately struck me about this book was how incongruously poised its first person narration is. Though the character Washington does show a natural intelligence throughout the story, one does have to question where an uneducated boy born into slavery picked up vocabulary words like unconscionable, inviolate, incandescence, leadenly, and disconsolate (these are only a portion of the ones I highlighted which jumped out at me, and I wasn’t even including dialogue from other characters). So while I would describe the prose as smart and pleasurable to read, and while I’d seek out more books by Edugyan in the future for this factor alone, I don’t think it suited this particular book.
But my bigger problem with Washington Black is the way that the plot seemed to drive the characters throughout the narrative, and not the other way around. To describe this premise and execution as contrived is an understatement. As I was reading, I felt like I could constantly see Edugyan’s hand manipulating these characters into the situations that they found themselves in, and this never ended up feeling like anything other than outlandish fiction. I have no problem with coincidences and fate being used by an author deliberately and thematically (see: The Heart’s Invisible Furies), but it’s a fine line to walk, and if this is what Edugyan was attempting, I’m afraid her efforts ended up seeming to me more like plot devices than divine intervention.
It’s a pacey and readable book from beginning to end (especially the end – I loved the last few chapters quite a lot), but the narrative structure of ‘character zips along from place to place, encountering quirky characters who quickly come and go’ will never be my favorite formula, and though there’s occasionally incisive commentary on the relationship between white abolitionists and freed slaves in the nineteenth century, none of it is really groundbreaking enough that I feel terribly enriched for having read this. I could have forgiven it a lot for being an entertaining story through and through, but despite the fact that I breezed through it in two days, it was a thoroughly lukewarm reading experience that I doubt will stay with me in any kind of significant way.
More of my Man Booker 2018 reviews: