Review: Washington Black

Washington BlackEsi Edugyan, Washington Black

George Washington Black is an 11-year-old slave, born on a sugar plantation in Barbados and doomed to a grueling life working in the cane fields. But when the master’s brother arrives at the plantation, he changes the course of Wash’s destiny. Christopher “Titch” Wilde is a scientist, and he enlists Wash’s help in building and testing a flying machine of his own invention. Titch also teaches Wash to read and encourages his talent for drawing. Eventually, a tragedy at the plantation forces Wash and Titch to flee, and their subsequent adventures take them as far as the Arctic and beyond. As Wash faces an uncertain future, he also ponders his identity as a black man in a hostile world and questions the significance of various relationships in his life.

I enjoyed this book and found it much more of a page-turner than I expected. Wash is a compelling narrator, and I was invested in his fate from the very beginning. His relationship with Titch is the central relationship in the book, and Edugyan does an excellent job of showing its complexity and ambiguity: Titch is kind to Wash and staunchly anti-slavery, yet their interactions are always complicated by their very different social status. However, I found the first half of the book more interesting than the second half; the plot seems to run out of steam, and the ending doesn’t really resolve anything. Which I think is intentional — after all, Wash grows from a boy of 11 to a young man of 18, but at the end of the novel he is just entering into his adult life. But I personally enjoy novels with a bit more resolution and emotional payoff. That said, I still liked the book and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in the premise.