Review: Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

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Where do you go, when you never considered leaving? 
Never considered it an option?
How does one even conceive the concept of choice, if it was never offered?

Such are the complex questions posed in Washington Black, a novel by Esi Edugyan, which was nominated for the Booker Prize of this year. Understandable, considering both the complex relationships explored in it, the important subjects discussed and its elements of magical realism.

The concept of stretching and crossing boundaries, therefore, is all over this book, in every sense of the word. It’s good; that’s not what I’ll be discussing here though. I’ll be discussing why, while it’s a well written book and I recommend it, I did not entirely enjoy reading it. I do think it’s really good, though.

Washington Black tells the wild story of a young enslaved boy from Barbados, who is literally swept across most of the known world throughout by either luck, fate, or accident. It is a story of wonderment at the world, and one of fear; an unfair one, to boot. And it is also one that just seems to ‘happen’; there is no ultimate plotline which draws everything together at the close; at least no apparent one. This makes it a difficult book to read in some sense, since most readers have been pampered with – and gotten used to – rounded stories, often (though not always) even with some kind of message tied to it. If I had to formulate a message for Washington Black, it’d be along the lines of:

Things are not fair
A sense of identity needs to be awarded before it can be truly owned
A large part of life is just existence
We cannot say we truly know others, or their lives.

See, that gets pretty ‘deep and difficult’ pretty quickly. That is not to say that Washington Black isn’t a very solid and sometimes even exhilarating read. On the contrary; airship-crashes, polar expeditions, underwater-adventures… It ticks the boxes of a true adventure novel: Amazing locations, beautiful prosaic descriptions, colourful characters which are almost too eccentric to have been imagined.

It just doesn’t feel like an adventure. And here’s why. This boy, Washington, does not consider it one. For him, this is at most a story of survival. Survival in a world that is strange, sometimes beautiful and wonderous, but mainly too immense to comprehend. He does not go on adventure, he ends up somewhere and survives. Adapts. Moves on, even when he does not want to. Because he has to. As he looks for something, unsure of what, it slowly becomes apparent that Washington’s life can only ever be about searching, never about finding, since what he lacks cannot be found; a sense of purpose, a sense of identity; a sense of self.

And this makes everything he struggles through a bit less exhilarating, even though the adventures themselves are. The same goes for the historical element; what we read in Washington Black is not the story of how slavery was absolved, interesting as that might be. We read how a young, escaped slave hears how the world he left behind no longer exists, after it chased him for so long; only inside of him these horrors still abide. And while the physical world around him seems to move on, he never can.

How am I supposed to enjoy an adventure which the protagonist so clearly doesn’t enjoy? I appreciate the complicated situation Edugyan has created here; the world is too complicated to simply like or dislike. Because it is so much like our world: it’s undefined, it has no satisfying conclusion. Only a uncertain, complex future, and a vague, uncanny now. And I can appreciate that, like I can appreciate Washington Black; but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Washington Black!
Read it!
Have you read it?
Tell me if you liked it!
I did. Kinda!