Washington Black — Esi Edugyan

I have mixed feelings about Washington Black. The story is really good: Washington Black (Wash), a slave on a Barbados plantation, is selected as personal servant to the brother of the owner. A friendship grows between the two of them, and Wash is ultimately liberated through an adventure on a hot air balloon. He journeys across the US to the North Pole before the brother abandons him, leaving Wash to fend for himself. Wash is freed from his circumstances, but trapped by his history and colour, and the remainder of the book wrestles with this, culminating in a strong ending.

Edugyan’s writing is consistently sound and largely devoid of distracting artifice. Between its story, themes and writing, I think this is a very strong contender for the prize.

Unfortunately, it didn’t engage me. While the writing is sound, it lacks emotional resonance. The start is a good illustration of this: Edugyan begins on the plantation and within a few pages is depicting the brutality of a slave society. However, with no time to establish character, the harsh treatment of slaves is rendered almost clinical. A character is introduced by name, tortured, and killed within the space of about two paragraphs and it’s hard to feel invested in a character we only meet in death. Moreover, these scenes are rendered in descriptive detail with little emotional response, yet this is ostensibly the perspective of an eleven year old Wash. Edugyan hasn’t just squandered an opportunity to elicit an emotional engagement with the setting; she’s not establishing a connection with her protagonist either. And while the specifics change, the book follows a pattern of detachment throughout, despite being a first person narrative.

As I said, I wouldn’t be surprised if this won the overall prize: it is a very good book. My objections are that the book could have been great. But this year, very good may be sufficient. The best books didn’t make the cut. And if I were betting on the outcome, I’d put my money on Washington Black. Even if I personally continue to root for The Overstory.

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