Booker Longlist Review: Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

by Sunita

This novel has now been longlisted for both the Booker and Giller prizes. It was one of the novels I especially looked forward to, and I found its themes interesting and ambitious, but the execution ultimately unsatisfying.

George Washington Black is a young boy, an outdoor slave on a Barbados sugar plantation, when he is plucked from the fields to assist the scientist brother of the villainous plantation master. When a cousin of the family dies and Wash is likely to be implicated, the brother, named Titch, and Wash take off in an airship. Thus begins their adventure, which takes Wash from Barbados to Virginia to arctic Canada to England and beyond, all in a brisk 350 pages.

The novel has the structure of an adventure story but Wash is a slave and Titch is the brother of his master and it’s 1830s US and England. So there’s much more going on than the normal coming of age story (Wash is barely a teenager when the novel opens). The first part, set on Barbados, is unsparing in its depiction of the horrors of plantation slavery. The villain may seem cartoonish and the conditions exaggerated, but the historical record pretty much confirms that this depiction is not unusual. The publisher’s blurb calls it steampunk, but none of the science is far-fetched. Airships, diving suits, and the types of scientific inquiry and specific experiments being conducted were all around at the time the story is set.

Since this is one of the Booker longlist choices a lot of people have been reading it at the same time, and I have felt as if I’m reading an entirely different book from them. Some readers have focused on the adventure aspects, calling it a rollicking story. I never had that feeling. Wash is a fugitive slave for a large portion of the book, and he’s chased by a bounty hunter for most of it. He’s at risk for capture in the US portion, especially since slavery is still legal, and in Canada and England he’s frequently treated as something less than human. When he falls in love and enters into a romantic relationship it regularly puts him at risk. His great scientific and artistic achievements are appropriated by white men, who encourage him but either can’t or don’t find ways to give him credit for his contributions. The story is suffused with the knowledge that he will probably never have a fully peaceful, satisfying life, because the world will not allow it.

The different characters embody both sides of the tragedy of slavery. Wash and the other enslaved workers on the plantation concentrate on surviving the horrors of their situation. Unlike other novels, which emphasize the camaraderie and support that develop within such communities, the enslaved people here are prickly and suspicious with each other. Even Kit, the older woman who watches over Wash, abuses him although she loves and cares for him. The white characters are all profiting from slavery, including the abolitionists, for whom the eradication of slavery was about them as much if not more than those whose freedom they sought.

The other contradiction Edugyan explores in this novel is the way scientists, who should in theory privilege talent and accomplishment over each others’ skin color and other characteristics, reinforced white supremacy. Titch and Goff both take advantage of Wash for their own benefit. Yes, they help him learn and thrive as a scientist and artist, but they always put themselves first. They may be great scientists, but they’re not particularly honorable people. Reading this book, I marveled that any black or colonial scientists ever got credit for their discoveries if white men were around to appropriate them.

As I said, there is much to appreciate and admire in this complex, many-layered novel. So why the three stars? Because so much of it just didn’t work for me as a novel. First, Wash was just not a very believable character. He was young, ignorant, and illiterate at the beginning, but he shows astonishingly sophisticated art skills almost immediately and he picks up scientific knowledge almost by osmosis. Sure there are autodidacts and natural genuises, but I just didn’t buy it here, in part because his voice is at such odds with his great talents for much of the book. In addition, I never understood why he remained so obsessed with Titch.

Second, there is a fair amount of direct exposition and preaching, especially in the last part of the book. The reader isn’t trusted to understand the underlying themes, so characters give speeches laying them out. Those took me out of the story. And finally, the style and pace are frequently off. There are some really clunky sections, especially in the expository bits, and the passage of time was oddly handled. This does have the bones of an adventure story, but except for one sequence we are picked up from one place and put down in another. For a novel about journeys, we rarely accompany Wash on the actual journey parts.

I can see this making the shortlist because it’s a very ambitious novel about important themes, approached in an unusual way. I wish it had worked better.

3.5 stars at Goodreads.