Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

washington black

“I knew the nature of evil. It was white like a duppy, it drifted down out of a carriage one morning and into the heat of a frightened plantation with nothing in its eyes.”

Reading this sentence in the very first chapter of Washington Black gave me a little flutter of excitement at what this book would be. I was expecting another 300 pages of profound and haunting prose that would bring to life the reality of 11-year-old field slave, Wash, and his adventures into the wider world in the midst of the abolition of slavery. Oh how I wish that were true.

I agree with everyone who says this book starts stronger than it finishes. The first quarter left me in a constant state of anticipation at what horrors would unfold at the plantation (although to be honest even this came to very little). This book addresses slavery less from a physical perspective and more on the issue of identity – what does it really mean to be free? Can you ever be free from your past? How do we form ideas about ourselves based on our relationships with others? – I’m thinking specifically about Wash and Titch with the latter one.

However I felt like these questions were never really explored much beyond the first half of the novel, which is a real shame as I thought self-discovery (against a background of scientific discovery) was what Wash’s journey was all about? I feel like Edugyan could have made more of the traumatic effects of slavery on one’s identity; it just didn’t feel that deep to me. Which is similar to what others have said about the latter half of the book being very much ‘this happened, then that happened’. By the time the book finished, I was left not really knowing where the narrative had taken me.

Nevertheless I did enjoy the book, it just took a bit of perseverance to get through to the end. Here’s one of my favourite quotes:

“My current life, I realised, was constructed around an absence; for all its richness I still felt as if the floors might give way, as if its core were only a covering of leaves, and I would slip through, falling endlessly, never again to get my footing.”

If you’re interested in explorations of identity, ‘Exit West‘ approaches this from the perspective of migration and how we leave parts of ourselves behind on our journey through life.

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