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Washington Black by Esi Edugyan [BookReview]

Did you love adventure stories as a child?

Washington Black, the Booker shortlisted novel by Esi Edugyan, is very much in the mould of the adventure novel although written with an adult reader in mind. It has many of the elements of the adventure tale: a courageous character who goes on a perilous quest to a far-flung location; high octane escapades in the form of a balloon flight and storms; and an ogre who shadows the protagonist wherever he goes.

Cover of Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

But to label it simply as an adventure novel would be a gross injustice because this is a multi-layered, hybrid novel in which excitement and thrills are married with thoughtful exploration. It’s a novel crafted with panache that uses thrills, coincidences and twists of fate to explore the nature of enslavement and freedom.

Washington Black opens on a cotton plantation in 19th-century Barbados where her eponymous hero, George Washington (“Wash”) Black, is a young orphan slave. Christopher “Titch” Wilde, brother of the plantation owner, picks Wash to be his personal assistant in an attempt to build a hot air balloon.

Flight To Freedom

The child proves to be a quick learner with a sharp mind and a latent talent as an illustrator.  As Titch and Wash form a bond through their joint endeavour, fate thrusts them even closer. The pair literally take flight from the Caribbean to protect Wash from accusations of murder and almost certain execution. A nomadic existence ensues, taking the boy to the Arctic, Nova Scotia, London, Amsterdam, and, finally, Morocco.

It’s a clever device that enables Esi Edugyan to greatly expand her scope. The early chapters which describe the physical brutality and emotional pain of slavery are vivid and memorable. But it’s when Wash is removed from the daily cruelty of slavery that the breadth and ambition of Washington Black become evident.

How Does It Feel To Be Free?

Edugyan’s interest is no less than the nature of freedom itself. Though her protagonist is no longer a plantation slave as Wash roams the world he carries with him the physical marks of his former servitude. A brand on his chest can be hidden but the fascial disfigurement caused by a failed experiment is all too evident. It makes him easy prey for the bounty hunter who stalks him from continent to continent years after slavery is abolished.

As a child Wash had asked a slave woman who befriended him, how it felt to be free. It was, she said, the ability to “go wherever it is you wanting.” But now he has this long desired free movement, he becomes terrified by that freedom. It is, he thinks, like “the terrible bottomless nature of the open world, where one belongs nowhere, and to no one.

He can never entirely separate his new self from his old. Even when he has become an accomplished, though unacknowledged, marine scientist he still thinks of himself as a “disfigured black boy with a scientific turn of mind and a talent on canvas, running, always running, from the dimmest of shadows.”

Journey To Understanding

The countries he visits become allegories of his journey to understand who he really is, and just as significantly, what he means to Titch. He had thought Titch was his friend but then the two became estranged in what Wash sees as an act of betrayal.

For years afterwards, Wash is in turmoil, constantly questioning whether Titch had valued him for as a person, or as a useful pair of hands or an abject creature in need of rescue. In an emotionally charged scene he finally gets to confront Titch.

I was nothing to you. You never saw me as your equal. You were more concerned that slavery should be a moral stain upon white men than by the actual damage it wreaks on black men.

That yearning for truth and for recognition haunts Washington Black. The boy who escaped bondage and eluded a slave catcher has grown up through the course of the novel. But as a young man he is still questioning the past and until he finds the answers, we sense that he will never be happy. Whether he does so by the time we reach the final page is still in doubt since Esi Edugyan leaves us with the kind of ending that is open to more than one interpretation.

What is clear however is that this is a fascinating novel that ranges far and wide geographically but never strays from the central idea about freedom as a state of mind as well as a physical entity.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan: Fast Facts

Esi Edugyan

Esi Edugyan was raised in Alberta, Canada after her parents immigrated from Ghana. Despite favourable reviews for her debut novel  The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, she struggled to find a publisher for her next work. she abandoned that to write Half-Blood Blues, about a young mixed-race jazz musician, for which she won the Giller Prize and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2011.

Washington Black, her third novel, was published in September 2018. It won the Giller Prize that year making Edugyan only the third writer to win the award twice. Washington Black was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and the 2019 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

22 thoughts on “Washington Black by Esi Edugyan [BookReview]

  • There are so many things to love about this book! Beautiful review, Karen!

  • Wow, sounds like a complex, multi-layered novel. I read, and loved Half Blood Blues by this author a few years ago.

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  • It sounds quite lovely. This book wasn’t on my radar, but I now look forward to reading it.

  • I love the sound of this book, but I still have an unread copy of Half-Blood Blues on my shelf which I really should read first!

    • Well they are not connected in any way so I don’t think you have to read them in any order 🙂

  • I loved this book too, and just because she’s from my city hah. My book club studied Washtington Black, and one of her school teachers attended the book club meeting and talked about how wonderful she was as a young girl, and how talented she was, even back then. Some people are just born with it I suppose…

    • I do love book club discussions where one of the participants has some additional insight they can share. We had one a long time ago about Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter and one book club member had visited Winter and had relatives there…..

  • jd armstrong

    technically, this is a marvellous book. But Black is so deformed by being a slave that he doesn’t understand being ‘used’–his wife’s father uses him just as much as the slave owners did and he doesn’t see it. He himself ‘enslaves’ the creatures he steals from their undersea lives. He allows the beautiful octopus to die in captivity. All in all, he is a failure because he never comes to understand the nature of freedom That, for me, made the book a disappointment.

    • Do you think he does come to that realisation at the end?

    • I wouldn’t have selected it either Karen – but the choice was made for me because it was the book club selection. A good decision as it turned out

  • A colleague read this recently and rated it very highly, so I’m glad to see that you liked it too. It’s a shame that it doesn’t seem to be gaining as much traction with the broader reading public as her earlier novel, Half-Blood Blues, as if anything this sounds the richer novel of the two.

    • I haven’t read the earlier book Jacqui so can’t really compare the two. Washington Black turned out to be a far more interesting book than I had anticipated just going on the book blurb.

  • Sounds wonderful. I’m looking forward to reading it.

    • I wasn’t very enthused when the book club chose this book because I hadn’t long read The Long Song with Andrea Levy and I thought another book about slavery would be too much. But actually Eduygan surprised me – yes the slavery aspect was there and was a fairly typical portrayal, but the book was about so much more than what happened on the plantation

  • Judy Krueger

    I loved this book and you have written a wonderful review that captures the essence of the story without giving too much away.

    • Thanks Judy. I find it so hard to write reviews without ending up just rehashing the plot – so many times I get halfway through a review and then realise all I’ve done is describe what happened rather than how the author achieved a particular effect.

  • buriedinprint

    I love all the layers in this novel. Also, how novel it is to afford some readers the opportunity to simply slip into the story and not think too much, but also to afford those who are looking for a little more substance the reward of threads linking and themes reflecting and so many rich passages to revisit as you move along. There are some good interviews with her online, too, if you are curious about the kind of research she did and what aspects of the story particularly thrilled her as a writer.

    • I hadn’t come across the interviews but now you’ve aroused my curiosity so shall go digging around


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