Book Review: Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

The second book I read in my Giller Prize reading challenge was Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. When purchasing this book, I didn’t know much about it. Typically, I don’t like reading summaries of books because sometimes they spoil the whole thing. However before reading, I knew it was a book about slavery, but it turned out to be much more than that. The novel centres around Washington Black, a slave in a sugar plantation in Barbados. There he becomes the assistant to the plantation owner’s brother: an inventor and abolitionist named Titch. After that, the novel explores Washington escaping Barbados in a flying boat, traveling to the Arctic, and becoming a novice marine biologist. This isn’t a synopsis you were expecting, right? Same here! There were moments in this novel where it felt fantastical, absurd, and shocking. It’s definitely literary fiction, but I feel like Edugyan brings in elements of other genres to tell this story.

My favourite part of this novel was its inventiveness. I don’t think I ever read a story quite like it. Firstly, Titch is an inventor who decides to build a Cloud Cutter, which is a boat with wings. He intends to test fly his invention out of Barbados, and brings Washington along with him. Once I got to this point in the novel, my expectations were thrown completely off into a different direction. At that moment, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was reading a literary, or a fantasy novel. This book doesn’t shy away from using unusual imagery and events to move the plot along. For example, we see Washington Black not just fly in this flying boat, but also have encounters with pirates, marine biologists, and dangerous terrain. Edugyan subverts any expectations I had with this novel, and kept me guessing throughout my reading of it.

Although this book has a lot of crisp imagery, I resonated most with the themes covered in the novel. One obvious theme is one’s sense of identity. In this case, Washington’s identity. Who is Washington Black? Is he the slave from Barbados? Is he the assistant to Titch? Is he the passionate novice to marine biology? Edugyan writes many different versions of Washington within the different points of his life. And what we see is that Washington is all these different versions. It’s only by the end of the novel that Washington comes to the realization of how he identifies himself, and eventually comes to peace with it. It was moving to see the struggles Washington has with his identity, and how he attempts to reconcile them. Edguyan focuses on the importance of knowledge, creativity, and science in building someone’s identity. These are all elements Washington tries to cultivate when going about his life in freedom. She makes it clear that Washington had the ability to learn and practice his passion all along, but the only thing holding him back was the racist system of slavery. Once Titch allows Washington to learn and express himself, you see Washington become a new person: a person he wanted to be.

This goes well into how Edugyan tries to encapsulate the theme of repeating the past. Titch’s character is constantly trying to repeat the past and make things better within his present. Without giving away any spoilers, he does try to replicate what he once had with Washington, but clearly it isn’t enough for himself and Washington. It’s interesting to see Washington realize this by the end of the novel. Titch is trying to fix his past mistakes, but without doing the hard work like apologizing for his past actions. Although Titch is a great character, he still has flaws, and that is something Washington sees as well. I enjoyed seeing Washington realize that the man who inspired him isn’t perfect, and that he shouldn’t try to be like Titch. If repeating the past is getting Titch nowhere, than Washington had to learn that doing so will only lead to failure. Washington can be his own person, and make his own mistakes and his own resolutions. This is what he comes to realize by the end of the novel.

If you couldn’t tell by now, I absolutely adored this book, and will continue to rave about it. I can confidently say that you haven’t read a novel quite like Washington Black. It’s creative, fun, heartbreaking, and challenging. I experienced a journey reading this novel, and it’s one I will never forget. I will say that the novel does slow down in the latter half. If you like a fast-paced books from start to end, you may find the latter part of this book a bit slow.

I gave Washington Black by Esi Edugyan a 5/5 on The Story Graph and Goodreads. I think this is a phenomenal book, and I really want to read more Esi Edugyan. Which, I actually will because she has won the Giller Prize once before with her novel Half Blood Blues. That means I’ll have another Edugyan review coming up on this blog at some point!

Have you read this novel? What did you think of it?