Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Book 325: Washington Black


"How strange, I thought, looking upon his sad, kind face, that this man had once been my entire world, and yet we could come to no final understanding of one another. He was a man who’d done far more than most to end the suffering of a people whose toil was the very source of his power; he had risked his own good comfort, the love of his family, his name. He had saved my very flesh, taken me away from certain death. His harm, I thought, was in not understanding that he still had the ability to cause it."

Dates read: July 5-9, 2019

Rating: 6/10

It's been shown time and time again that dehumanization is a crucial aspect of the commission of atrocities. Calling other people animals, or insects, thinking of them that way, makes it easier to rationalize cruelties towards them. But we don't as often consider the other side of it. To be dehumanized has recognizable effects on the perpetrator, but what about the recipient? How do people come to absorb that conception of themselves?

What would it mean to be born into a system where your humanity wasn't recognized, to have no "before" to remember your full self existing in? Esi Edugyan's Washington Black explores the life of the titular character, called "Wash" for short, born into slavery on a sugar plantation in Barbados owned by a cruel man called Erasmus. His life changes forever when he's 11, when Erasmus's brother Christopher ("Titch") comes to visit, and Wash and his mother-figure, Big Kit, who work in the fields, are asked to help serve dinner in the house. Titch asks for the use of Wash while he's on the plantation, to assist him in his experiments, and this leads to the first time in his life that Wash is treated at all like a person. While Titch has tasks for him to perform, he's allowed to get regular sleep, to think about whether he likes the food in front of him, and a previously undiscovered talent for drawing is developed and acknowledged. But then there's a death, and Wash is blamed, and he and Titch are on the run.

Once they read the United States, Wash is given the opportunity to be transported to freedom in Canada through the Underground Railroad. But he sticks with Titch, and the two of them are pursued by a slave hunter while trying to uncover what really happened when Titch and Erasmus's father disappeared and reportedly died. Eventually, they are separated, and Wash is on his own for the first time in his life. He ends up in Nova Scotia, where he meets Tanna, the daughter of an oceanographer, and their growing bond, as well as Wash's gift for illustration, earns him an invite to travel with them to England, where Wash plunges deeper into a search for answers about his life.

The coverage I'd heard of this book before I picked it up made it sound like an adventure story, which I was not particularly excited about. And it partly is: the portion of the book where Titch and Wash are on the run, making up much but not all of the first half, is quick-paced and the atmosphere of suspense that Edugyan creates as they try to stay ahead of their tracker was engaging. But the back half of the novel becomes much more languid, turning inward as Wash begins to really examine himself and build a self-concept. This is usually the kind of thing I eat up, I love novels rooted in psychological realism! But I think the pacing of the book was damagingly uneven. After the brisk energy of the first half, the slow-down makes the book feel like it's dragging and it began to seem like a slog to get through.

Which is unfortunate, because Edugyan is a beautiful writer. Her prose is elegant and insightful, and she does wonderful character work with Wash, whose journey towards personal understanding is moving. I do wish she'd done more with the character of Tanna, who starts out dynamic and winds up in a role as Wash's emotional supporter that feels cliche and reductive. Once Titch leaves the narrative, though, so does much of the tension driving the plot forward, and to have that momentum built and then lost unfortunately undermines the strength of the work as a whole. It has brilliant moments, and I'd still say it was pretty good, but the pacing issues kept it from greatness. I'd look forward to reading more work from Edugyan in the future, and this book does have merit and is worth reading if you're interested in it, but it's too unbalanced to really affirmatively recommend.  

One year ago, I was reading: Throne of Glass

Two years ago, I was reading: The Moor's Account

Three years ago, I was reading: There There

Four years ago, I was reading: Motherless Brooklyn

Five years ago, I was reading: In The Skin Of A Lion

Six years ago, I was reading: The Name Of The Rose

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