Broad in size and scope, Washington Black proceeds over almost fifty brisk-paced chapters. Edugyan’s achievement, in unfolding Wash's story, is one full of contraries. It is a novel of ideas but also of the senses, a yarn and a lament, a chase story that doubles as an intellectual quest, a history lesson in the form of a fairy tale. Moments of horrifying cruelty and violence sit alongside episodes of great tenderness and deep connection. A majestic grandeur is achieved with the lightest touch
A dazzling exploration of race in the Atlantic world, which also manages to be a yarn and a chase story. A book of extraordinary political and racial scope, Washington Black is wonderfully written, extremely imaginative, profoundly engaging and filled with an empathetic understanding of characters who are uprooted from places they knew and required to make adjustments in worlds they could barely have dreamt of. It manages to keep you on the edge of your seat, while making you, as a reader, want to savour every moment.
Fleur Sinclair, from the Sevenoaks Bookshop, said: "One of the most enjoyable novels I read last year. Very big, very ambitious... it sweeps the reader along. But there's so much meaty, rich stuff in it."
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2018, this searing tale begins on a Barbados sugar plantation. ‘There could be no belonging for a creature such as myself . . . a disfigured black boy with a scientific turn of mind,’ says slave Washington Black... Slavery — its abominations and cruelties — lies at the heart of the novel. Yet it is also about adventure, science, friendship and the inner journey of an individual. I loved it for its daring and originality.
For all its cinematic capers... Washington Black is a profoundly humane story about false idols, the fickleness of fortune and whether a slave, once freed, can ever truly be free. Wash is left wondering whether some abolitionists are more concerned about the moral stain that slavery leaves on white men than the damage it wreaks on black people. While some characters feel a little like paper cut-outs, Edugyan shows a sophisticated understanding of power dynamics — not only between masters and slaves, but within families and friendships. She also knows when to ratchet up the tension and when to relax it.
Washington Black is a gripping tale, made vivid by Esi Edugyan’s gifts for language and character, and by the strength of her story. Though in truth it would be better to say “stories”, for Black’s adventures over the course of this 400-page novel are strikingly various. The book ranges from Barbados to Nova Scotia, from the Arctic to Amsterdam; from England to Morocco. Wash – as he is known to those close to him – is blown by fate all over the surface of the globe.
Esi Edugyan's third novel, Washington Black, is therefore a rare creation. It is a work of unmistakable literary sensibility, written in prose that is fresh and beautiful, yet it retains a storyteller's skill to shock and surprise. If you can imagine a mashup between the film Twelve Years a Slave and Philip Pullman's Northern Lights, you can see why Washington Black is a novel that both deserves its place on the Man Booker longlist and a wide readership, too.
Washington Black is.. a straightforward adventure story. The timeline is linear, plot twists are shocking and coincidences reliably frequent. Edugyan beautifully captures the dramatic landscapes through which Wash roams, but she sometimes drops the ball with sentences that sound skin-crawlingly overwritten: “You are like an interruption in a novel,” gushes one character to Wash in the middle of a high-octane scene. “The agent that sets things off course.” The comment is so saccharine that it almost ruins the chapter.
Edugyan is willing to take great risks to release the reader from any easy or predictable interpretations of Washington. She is not afraid to allow him to have thoughts and knowledge that seem oddly beyond his command. That is part of his ambiguous power in the book, the idea that, owing to his unusual quickness and subtlety of mind, Washington can be trusted to know more than he should. His place in this changing, dangerous world is not fixed. Social realism will not help him on his picaresque journey...Edugyan is careful, nonetheless, that her flying machine of a novel not fly too freely into the upper air. She manages this by confining Washington’s version of events, when necessary, to close and precise description. His mind works plausibly. His prose can be vivid, sometimes fervid, but it can also be measured.
It is busy plotting but Edugyan’s intellectual inquiries are tucked neatly inside it, though one initially wishes that Edugyan had stayed on the Barbados plantation a little longer. Her descriptions of the terror there resemble the striking aesthetics of Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Twelve Years a Slave, which set a slowed-down and meticulous cruelty against moments of equally slow, still beauty. The beauty here lies in Edugyan’s language, which is precise, vivid, always concerned with wordcraft and captivating for it.
Which is not to say that parts of Washington Black are not gripping; more than one of its parts reads as though it could have comprised the spine of a tighter, slower novel, one just as stocked with detail and atmosphere, but without the almost antic restlessness which pulls this narrative to too many places, both in terms of geography and plot, too frequently and flimsily.
Edugyan’s magnificent and strikingly visual prose carries the reader along a certain distance — this is a tale to be entered without disbelief or doubt, despite the contrivances and coincidences that stitch together the rough cloth of the plot.... But as Wash and Mister Titch are driven to and fro by a gleefully baroque series of unfortunate events — Wash pursued by a slave-hunter, Titch haunted by the ghosts of acts of cruelty that he and his brother once committed — the novel stands in danger of losing a more subtle track.
The journey that Edugyan takes us on is fascinating and enjoyable, but rather like the hot air balloon that took Black from Barbados, it sometimes drifts off course.