Washington Black

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This novel hooked me right away. The riveting, horrific slave narrative set in the mid-1800s on Faith Plantation in Barbados carried me along breathlessly through Part I. Edugyan’s powers of description are sumptuous and surprising, the character of Big Kit powerful and heart-breaking, and the problematic relationship between Wash and Titch both captivating and uncomfortable. As Wash escaped his enslavement and the novel took a turn into magical realism, I remained engrossed, excited to find out where Wash’s adventures would take him and how his complicated relationship with Titch would evolve.

But then, I was unceremoniously dumped into Part II, made to wander aimlessly with Wash to the Arctic and then Nova Scotia, eventually on to London and Morocco, past one red herring too many, characters introduced and then abandoned, and a thin plot forwarded by improbable happenstance and coincidence. And, while there are still moments of gorgeous and revelatory description reminiscent of the lively, detailed passages that propel the plot in Part I, Wash’s story in Parts II-IV is told mostly through plodding exposition–it’s a travelogue really–pushing forward a series of events that, in the end didn’t really seem to add up to much. By the time Wash meets Tanna I had mostly checked out. When we arrived in London in search of Titch I felt a faint hope that the novel would get back on course, but was ultimately disappointed.

This fascinating and magical story began with so much promise, unfolding during the tumultuous end of slavery and the blossoming of science, sending the narrator to strange and exotic locales, and featuring a haunted, brutalized protagonist who against all odds discovers and develops his own genius for art and science. However, in the end, after coasting aimlessly on fumes for several chapters, Washington Black just peters out, like a cloudcutter with a leaky balloon.