Washington Black

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 07 Sep 2018

Member Reviews

Whilst I would've liked a little more closure I have to say this is a beautifully crafted historical fiction. The writing is captivating and the characters felt so real.
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Washington Black is an extremely entertaining page turner worthy of its Booker shortlisting. It's a haunting depiction of the horrors of slavery and a exploration of what it means to be truly free.
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11-year-old slave Washington Black is taken from the sugar fields and lent to his tyrannical master’s brother, Titch, to work on a ‘cloudcutter’ hot air balloon. The duo form an unlikely friendship that, coupled with Washington’s artistic talent, could provide a way out of slavery.
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I enjoyed the first part of this book, although enjoyed isn't the right word as the descriptions of the experience of slavery in Barbados are raw and brutal, hard to read and very well written. However, I then didn't know what the book was supposed to be about - was it slavery, was it an adventure story, was it a love story? From Barbados, to the Antarctic, Canada, London, Amsterdam and Morocco, it swung from section to section without much flow. I liked the writing style, but the overall message was lost on me.
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There are plenty of positives in this adventure-filled tale of an escaped plantation slave with a remarkable gift for scientific thinking. Esi Edugyan’s story is pacey and readable with an engaging narrator and a brisk but lyrical writing style that shifts the narrative along nicely. The descriptions of the (very!) different landscapes Wash encounters from the harsh reality of the Virginia plantation, to sea voyages, the Far North, London, Amsterdam, Morocco are nicely described but in this improbably varied list lies much of the problem I had with the book as a whole. There is both TOO MUCH and TOO LITTLE.

The globe-trotting, adventure-story format of Wash’s life packs an extraordinary amount of action and movement, so much that Erdugyan has so go to great lengths to make it possible. Take Wash and Titch’s airship escape from the plantation, eventually crash-landing into a ship on the open ocean. The impossible nature of this feat gives the whole book an unwarranted “steampunk” feel that jars against the idea of scientific accuracy (see Wash’s gift for observation and illustration). Their journey in search of Titch’s father in the wastes of the Antarctic reminded me of nothing so much as Lyra’s journey in Northern Lights, another unsuitable comparison, and this fantastical element did the story no favours. Rather than being fully-integrated into the story or explained these elements are glossed over, merely convenient devices to move the plot along when it writes itself into a tight corner. The narrative is full of extraordinary coincidences that allow the story to transition to another phase which isn’t a new device (Victorian novels are rife with it!) but here it was more likely to draw an eye-roll and a sigh than any forbearance because the narrative just doesn’t hang together.

Couple the ill-fated airship with the polar exploration, the scientific illustration, the development of aquariums, the search for Titch, the terribly unnecessary romance sub-plot (an attempt to address the fact that there are no female characters of note later in the novel?) AND the constant threat of the relentless bounty-hunter set on Wash’s tail by his former master, this covers the TOO MUCH.

As for TOO LITTLE...There is too little substance. Likeable and engaging the characters may be but they’re not particularly fleshed out beyond Wash himself. When Titch essentially abandons Wash alone and with little hope of survival Wash begins to question the real nature of their friendship. The idea of what kind of equality can exist between a freed slave and a white “saviour” is an interesting historical and contemporary issue, whether it’s the motivation of abolitionists or white allies but it all remains too woolly to be really meaningful, hinted at rather than plumbed in depth. I can’t help but think that it would have been better served had Wash and Titch not separated so soon or if they had reunited earlier so that their relationship had an opportunity to develop in person rather than in absentia. It doesn’t help that the reader isn’t really allowed to consider the issue, rather the regrettable character of Tanna (whose entire existence is an affront to the maxim “show don’t tell”) simply informs us (and Wash) what Titch’s actions mean and how they should be understood. 

The wicked characters have little time on the page and remain essentially that, wicked and unyielding with little understanding of their motivations. This is fine, in fact common, in fantasy and adventure stories but the interrogation of the relationship between Wash and Titch suggests that Edugyan was trying to go further but failed in the attempt. In this way Washington Black just doesn’t capitalise on its own creation and gets side-tracked by the relentless romp of the action. I wanted it to go deeper into the issues at its heart but it was doomed by the unnecessary complexity of the plot that left little space for the characters to draw breath.
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Esi Edugyan's Booker-shortlisted Washington Black shares some surface similarities with Jane Harris's recent Sugar Money: they are both narrated by a young, male, enslaved narrator who starts his story in the West Indies, although Washington Black is set in the early nineteenth century, exploring the shifting legal position of slavery at the time, whereas Sugar Money deals with a slave revolt in the mid-eighteenth century. Both books also tap into an eighteenth- and early-nineteenth century tradition of adventure narratives, which can lead them to feel a bit repetitive, as the story jumps from one dramatic event to another. However, I found Washington Black much more reflective and emotionally resonant than Sugar Money, helped by the fact that it takes place over a longer period of time and moves through a range of geographically diverse settings.

Washington Black's life is transformed when, as a young boy, he comes into contact with his master's brother, 'Titch', who helps him escape from slavery and adventure into the unknown. Like Sugar Money, Washington Black moves from scenes of intense and horrifying realism - most of which take place on the Barbados plantation - to more whimsical escapades, as when Washington and Titch fly off in a hot air balloon and, finding themselves about to crash into the sea, manage to steer it so they land on a ship (much to the captain's displeasure). Tonally, Edugyan handles this expertly, and Washington's voice is convincing and compelling.

Nevertheless, I felt that there was something lacking in the cast of this novel. Frustratingly, it was Titch rather than Washington who came most vividly alive for me. Initially appearing as a kind of 'white saviour', or, in more historically-appropriate terminology, a 'knight in shining armour', Titch's mind and motives are deconstructed across the course of this novel. Edugyan cleverly flips our perspective on him a number of times, revealing his inner conflict while not allowing him to become truly sympathetic. The final scene between him and Washington is especially powerful. While I appreciated this nuanced portrait, it's a shame that the main black characters feel so wooden in comparison. Washington notably comes to life only when he interacts with Titch, while a love interest introduced about halfway through the novel remains no more than that. Three and a half stars.
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I would compare this book favourably to The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, though this book concerns the discovery, capture and study of rare creatures rather than mythical ones. Washington's adventures around the world were not so interesting to me as the creation of his aquarium, which occurred near the end of the novel. I have no interest at all in reading about slaves' relationships with "kind" masters- the nature of slavery means that any relationship will always be unequal, misguided and cruel. Washington Black the artist, engineer, architect and naturalist is far more exciting and deserving of 'screen time' than Washington the slave. The story is so visual, it would make a fantastic adaptation: flying machines, far-off countries, aquatic life and brutal explosions. I would have loved to read this book alongside examples of the botanical drawings that Washington creates- if an illustrated edition of the book is ever published, I will definitely buy one!
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This is the only book on the Booker shortlist that appealed to me in the slightest, so I’m sad to be abandoning it a fifth of the way through. It’s written in a sort of woeful monotone, and while in real life I’m sure that’s not unreasonable for a slave on a plantation, this is fiction and requires some form of emotional shading to hold the attention. I find the few characters who have been introduced so far entirely unrealistic – caricatured to the nth degree. And I am so tired of being told every two paragraphs that Wash is afraid – show me, don’t tell me! Make me feel his fear along with him.

I do wish writers would go back to telling great stories rather than using books as vehicles to thump home their liberal points. In times gone by, authors used to respect the reader enough to allow her to recognise the point for herself within a great story – see Beloved.
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An imaginative, thoughtful book about slavery, freedom and friendship
 
Short listed for the Booker prize ‘Washington Black’ tells the story of an 11-year-old slave named George Washington Black. His life is irrevocably changed after he becomes a manservant for Titch, the brother of the brutal plantation owner, Erasmus Wilde.
Upon discovering Wash’s interest in science and talent for art, he takes the boy under his wing. But after a dramatic death in the Wilde family, Wash has a bounty put on his head. He and Titch escape in a hot-air balloon and embark on an adventure around the globe.  
I was instantly relieved to find a ‘traditional read’ with a linear time line, and not the recent trend for multiple character perspectives and multiple time lines. I found it refreshing that a tale was told, with no additional devices apart from a good plot, interesting subject matter and great characterization.
This book is not just a book about the horrors of slavery, it’s mostly about freedom. The start of the book based on the plantation is extremely powerful and shows the horror of slavery in brutal detail. Nothing new here, this has been explored before but it’s still powerful. However, this is not where the author wants to take us. It’s Washington’s freedom she wishes to explore.
Being told in the first person helps to round the character of Wash and build empathy. Edugyan writes in such a way that you feel you are with Wash throughout the tale, a tale which takes a slave boy from Barbados to Nova Scotia, to the Arctic, to the streets of Amsterdam and London, and the deserts of Morocco.
Wash is a great character, intelligent, sensitive and determined, it’s impressive how he remains human, despite the horrors inflicted upon him (even by the ones he loves).
There are many characters he meets on his journey that are brought to life and become memorable. From the brutal plantation owner, Erasmus Wilde, to the mysterious and malevolent bounty hunter Willard (tasked with finding Wash, dead or alive). We also meet Wash’s love, the strong, feisty and intelligent ‘Tanna’.
It’s a shame that some of these characters were underused, especially ‘Big Kit’ Wash’s guardian, but it was evident the author wants to tell a different story. It would have been good to see the character of Titch developed more fully too.
It is a massively ambitious novel and leaves the plantation, where the book is most compelling, into Titch’s meandering tour of a richly imagined and exotic world, to find out why he was rejected by Titch. The author brings the locations alive and the pages are full of wonder.  There is an authenticity to the writing and this is backed up with the writer’s obvious research into marine biology. I found this an easy read, it’s not a rip roaring adventure, but there is no pretension, it’s well plotted, easy to follow, and a great read.
This is a powerful novel about a boy forced into adulthood, as the reader takes a journey with Wash exploring the world and examining ‘what is freedom if you have never been free?’.

Thanks to NetGalley for an ARC, in return for an honest review.
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I had enjoyed ‘Half Blood Blues’, which I read for two book groups, and so when I read of ‘Washington Black’ being on the 2018 Man Booker long list I put in a request to the publishers via NetGalley. My thanks to Serpent’s Head for this copy. 

I found it a beautifully written and powerful tale that very much evoked its period in this journey of a young slave in the 1830s from a sugar plantation in Barbados to various parts of the world as he grows to manhood, yet with the shadow of the slave-catcher ever present. He searches for his place in the world where he can utilise his fierce intelligence and artistic talent.

Edugyan’s style captures the kind of travelogue adventure that was popular in the nineteenth century, such as those written by Jules Verne. Despite this vintage format this is a modern, intelligent, multi-layered work that explores issues such as slavery and racism, love and friendship, the search for identity alongside the quest for scientific discovery and exploration. 

I very much enjoyed this novel and loved its rich descriptions of place. A test for me is if there is an Artic setting I expect to feel the cold in my bones. I certainly did while reading this!

It is a novel that I feel I would like to re-read in a group setting as it has so much material for discussion. I am hoping it makes the Man Booker short-list.
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My first "did not finish" from Booker Long list. The writing is good quality, neat and clean tone of voice, but unfortunately after 15% it didn't pull me in. This is a story-heavy book, but I didn't feel attached to the plot to learn what was going to happen to Washington Black. I felt like it's lacking originality as we have read many similar books before. 
So unfortunately this didn't work for me.
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When considering the immeasurable evil of slavery it’s difficult to fully fathom the ramifications it had amongst so many individuals' lives. Not only were people’s freedom and lives brutally curtailed, controlled and cut short, but their talent and potential was also squandered. Esi Edugyan evocatively portrays the life of George Washington Black or “Wash”, a character with the aptitude to be a great artist and scientist were he not born into slavery on a Barbados plantation in 1818. But she grants him the potential to partially foster his talents when he comes under the apprenticeship of an eccentric scientist who is the brother of the plantation owner/overseer. What follows is a fantastically imaginative, heartrending and compulsively readable tale of his journey and growth into early adulthood. It’s a richly immersive story that also powerfully shows the perspective of slaves who feel “We had been estranged from the potential of our own bodies, from the revelation of everything our bodies and minds could accomplish.” This psychological state is complexly rendered as are the way people surrounding Wash fail to fully empathize and understand the ramifications of it. “Washington Black” is an astounding novel.

Edugyan perceptively shows the way that the development of children are so atrociously twisted growing up in slavery, how relationships become perverted and emotionally disrupted. Not only does she portray this in her protagonist but it’s also poignantly rendered in the character of a slave girl who is seen only fleetingly, but Wash observes at one point that she has become pregnant and we’re left to horrifically wonder how this eleven year old’s pregnancy came about. The author also sympathetically shows the challenging emotional state of a boy going through adolescence where new feelings of stimulation are so often mixed with a sense of shame: “I would wake aroused against the sheets, feeling all at once thrillingly alive in my skin, and ashamed.” Wash encounters many challenges that prevent him from feeling pride in either his body or mind. His journey is both an inner struggle to fully foster and own his natural gifts as well as a physical quest to survive the confines of his restricted circumstances. Amidst the immediate action of Wash’s trials, there are intriguing mysteries in the background which gradually unfold over the course of the book.

I also really appreciated the beautiful writing in this novel, particularly when Edugyan is portraying the natural world and Wash’s scientific study of it. Maybe I just have an affinity for scenes in stories that take place under water, but just like Egan’s “Manhattan Beach” there’s a stunning scene in this book when Wash dives underwater and discovers a liberating space. Edugyan writes “How luminous the world was, in the shallows. I could see all the golden light of the dying morning, I could see the debris in it stirring, coming alive. Blue, purple, gold cilia turned in the watery shafts of light slicing down. In the gilded blur I caught the flashing eyes of shrimp, alien and sinewy… all this I let drop away, so that I hung with my arms suspended at my sides, the soft current tugging at me. The cold sucked at me and the light weakened, and I was finally, mercifully, nothing.” It’s as if the only place Wash can be liberated from the constrictions of his identity is in this alien underwater world where he can never truly belong.

In its very title this book asks a powerful open-ended question about all the people in history who possessed innate talent and intelligence, but whose skin colour and status dictated whether they realized their potential or were forced to squander it. Even though it’s a historical novel it makes a powerful political statement naming its slave hero after the first US president. In this era after Obama’s presidency it seems horrifically regressive that the current president is someone who only achieved his position through money and an old-world sense of superiority. It feels like Edugyan is challenging us to consider under what terms we want to found our future: superficial details or real capability? There are so many impactful themes and ideas in “Washington Black”, but what makes the novel so gripping are the surprising twists the story takes that left me desperate to discover what will happen next.
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Absolutely mesmerising. I thought this book was stunning in terms of its handling of the subject matter, and the execution of the prose. With its quirky flights into the realm of steampunk, the core message and theme of the book was made all the more intense. This would be a more than deserving winner of the Man Booker Prize...
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Esi Edugyan’s epic historical adventure Washington Black is full of the unexpected, and a thought provoking exploration of race and freedom.
George Washington Black is a slave on a plantation in Barbados. When he is recruited as the assistant of a white abolitionist he is caught up in events which put him in mortal danger and take him across the world, from the Arctic to Canada, through to 19th Century London, Amsterdam and the deserts of Morocco.
The book is a compelling story and an original imagining of traditional slavery narratives. It is unpredictable and constantly moves in new and unexpected directions. Erdugyan refocuses the narrative from the means of escape through the fantastical use of the Cloud Cutter, allowing more focus and exploration of Wash’s life after slavery, as a free, yet hunted man. Equally the characters of Wash, Tanna and even Titch are nuanced and full of moral and ethical complexities. Edugyan forces us to question Titch’s privileged white liberalism and to look critically as his relationship with Wash and the effect he has on the hero’s life. She cleverly uses this 19th Century narrative to draw out issues relevant to society today.
The research that must have gone into this book is phenomenal. This is not only from a historical perspective but also scientific, understanding the physics of aircraft and the biology of marine life, not to mention the technical aspects that are covered in detail. The science of the book provides an added dimension to the novel, embellishing the story beyond the typical slavery narrative and providing more depth and complexity to Wash’s character and his relationships.
The book is incredibly moving and full of pathos at every turn, yet through Wash, Edugyan offers us hope for the future and important lessons to learn for today. This is a beautiful read and a worthy Man Booker Longlistee.

I received this book as an advanced reader copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review; all opinions are my own.
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Quietly gripping and deeply moving, this book deserves its place on the booker longlist.  It is a book that will linger in the mind long after finishing it.
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I'm not sure I'd have read Washington Black if it hadn't been nominated for the Booker Prize. I just don't think it would have been on my radar. But when I examined the synopses of all the long-listed novels, it jumped right to the top of my list. Of all the books selected, it sounded like the most accessible and entertaining. And it is a fun read. It's a globe-trotting romp, a fast-paced historical adventure.

Our narrator is the eponymous George Washington Black, an eleven-year-old slave on a Barbadian sugar plantation. Like all of the other workers he is treated terribly by the sadistic owner, Erasmus Wilde, beaten for the smallest infraction. Kit, an older slave, takes him under her wing but "Wash" seems doomed to a life of servitude. That is until Christopher "Titch" Wilde shows up. He is much kinder and more thoughtful than his cruel brother - an abolitionist and a man of science. He enlists the help of Wash to help build his latest experiment, a type of flying machine he dubs "the cloud-cutter." Titch is amazed at Wash's aptitude for this work, and the uneducated boy displays a particular talent for drawing. The duo wait for the perfect conditions to launch their contraption, but they might have to avail of its services sooner than they think.

From such unpromising origins, Wash finds himself on a great adventure. His journey takes far from his Caribbean home, out upon the high seas and even on an Arctic expedition. But there is more to his story than navigating the globe. Wash eventually begins to question his place in the world. He wonders if the scars of slavery will ever leave him. And though he owes his life to the intervention of Titch, he starts to see flaws in the one person he looks up to more than anyone else. It is as much a cautionary tale about perils of false idols, as a story about the wounds of servitude.

However, as much as I enjoyed reading this book, I felt that something was missing. It's an entertaining story but I just don't think it possesses the literary heft required of a Booker winner. There is nothing wrong with Edugyan's writing but I didn't feel that she had anything truly profound to say. And the ending seemed quite flat to me, almost unfinished. Maybe I'm being a little harsh. Though I found it rather lightweight, I'm glad I read Washington Black. It's a captivating, pacy story with a very likable hero.
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A great read. George Washington Black is a slave boy, on a sugar plantation in Barbados; he is selected to become the scientific assistant to the master's brother, Christopher 'Titch' Wilde. The narrative carries the reader through the many adventures and explorations the two embark upon - flying off in Titch's balloon-like contraption to escape mortal danger for Wash, pushing up to the Arctic to look for Titch's father, Wash's journey across America and Europe, and his own scientific endeavours.

The story spans slavery, oppression, scientific discovery, travel, relationships, love, freedom... a whole host of themes which knit together beautifully to form a cleverly crafted story. Highly recommended.
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This is certainly very readable but I'm not convinced that the various elements really come together. The brutalities of plantation life for black slaves have been more fully depicted elsewhere, not least in The Underground Railroad and the classic Beloved. The second half is more like a Victorian adventure: think Jules Verne here, with balloons, ship voyages, and aquariums. By the end, themes of freedom, homecoming and reparations emerge with concerns about the lingering effects of slavery and ownership. For me, though, the more serious side of the book doesn't sit well with the romping adventures.
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This book begins on a sugar plantation in Barbados. Our main character Was (Washington Black) is an 11 years old slave, whose master just changed. The masters brother (Titch, who is a scientist) wants him to be his own assistant, and from there, his life changes. 

The book addresses some topics really well, embedded into an adventurous story. Cruelty of slavery, prejudice, family, love, etc. It's very rich in content and has multiple layers. This complexity is what makes it special. There's a suspense which makes you keep reading. And I enjoyed Eduyan's character development a lot. 
I would definitely recommend it. It's on the Man Booker long list as well. 

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for granting a copy in exchange for an honest review.
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When we first meet George Washington Black, he is a field slave at the Faith Plantation, Barbados. The Plantation is taken over by Erasmus Wilde, a cruel and vindictive master who treats his animals with more respect than his slaves. Thus begins a well-told but fairly routine slavery+cruelty story. 
Then Washington’s fortunes change when Erasmus’s brother Christopher comes to stay. He is an idealist and inventor; he needs an assistant to help him build a giant balloon in which he hoped to cross the Atlantic. He is invited to live with Christopher, to call him Titch, to eat fine food and speak his mind. Wash struggles to accept these freedoms, perhaps mindful that they only exist as long as Titch is prepared to let them exist. 

Then a paradigm shift and we are with Titch and Wash aboard a trading ship plying its way to Virginia. The captain and medic seem somewhat nonplussed to have given refuge to an obvious runaway slave. We have a historic maritime novella, reminiscent of Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea or Ian Maguire’s The North Water. It is well done and there is a sense of menace and tension. 

Then we have a stay in Arctic Canada looking at marine life.

Then on to Nova Scotia where Wash finds romance but lives in fear of recapture. 

Then to London, trying to engage with Titch’s aristocratic family. 

Then to Amsterdam.

Then to Morocco.

This is a plot driven novel with vivid detail. Esi Edugyan evokes four different worlds in vivid colours. But, the story never quite convinces. The characters don’t have a great deal of depth despite having plenty of action. Even Wash, the narrator, really just feels like an everyman. The main characters all do things for no obvious reason. Why does Cousin Philip shoot himself? Why does he visit Erasmus at all when he has such an unhappy history with the man? Why does Mr Wilde pretend to be dead? Why did Titch walk away from Wash? Why did John Willard keep trying to track Wash when there was no longer a bounty to be had? Why would Erasmus place such a large bounty on a slave in the first place when he thought them no more and no less than livestock? 

The shifting across different worlds also produced what felt like several different stories with several different atmospheres – almost like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, with only the slenderest of threads to hold them together. And given the issues of character motivation, each subsequent section became slightly diminished. The final section, England (although much of it was in Morocco) felt confusing and didn’t really provide the resolutions it set out to achieve. 

This doesn’t make Washington Black a bad book. Much of it is compelling, visceral. It is never less than readable and the progression from Barbados to the sea to Canada to England to Morocco is innovative for a 19th Century historical novel. There is something steampunk about the ballooning; the slave section is as good a slave narrative as any; the journey at sea is rollicking. There is an air of menace and tension through much of the novel - although this starts to dissipate in Nova Scotia and is gone by London. There is a sense of how a black person might have fitted in to various different communities. There are questions about the nature of freedom, particularly when bound by societal expectations, station of birth, and the threat that freedom might be taken away. 

But there is an abiding sense that this has fizzled after a really stunning first half. 

How does that all stack up? Being generous, perhaps four stars.
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