Review: Washington Black

Washington Black was short-listed for the 2018 Man Booker Prize. From its nomination to the glowing praise around the Internet, most people liked this book more than I did. Though the first half of the book is well-written, the plot’s over-reliance on coincidence strains belief in the second half. Unlike my usual reviews, there are minor spoilers for the end of the book.

Washington Black follows the life and adventures of a former slave, George Washington “Wash” Black. Wash is owned by a horrifically cruel man, Erasmus Wilde, but his life changes when he’s loaned to Titch. Titch encourages Wash’s natural talent as an artist and tries to treat him well. After a complicated mishap, Wash and Titch flee Barbados in a hot air balloon and crash onto a ship bound for Virginia. From the states, they travel to the Arctic, where Titch mysteriously vanishes. The action ranges from Nova Scotia, to London, to Amsterdam, and Morocco—everywhere he goes, Wash finds familiar people, but will he find Titch? (And who cares anyway, isn’t this supposed to be Wash’s story?)

Throughout the novel, the writing is clear and strong—I’ve already picked up a copy of Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues. Wash’s existence as a slave is outlined in a few ways: the crushing labor, the daily fear, and the abrupt change in his routine and treatment when he’s plucked from the field. The damage done to his body and mind is most sharply illustrated by his fear and confusion at being treated with simple decency by Titch. Titch blithely assumes that if he’s nice to Wash, the pair can be fast friends and get right to work, but he underestimates how differently they see the world:

“I shall ask my brother to release you permanently,” said [Titch], weighing my expression. “Does that please you?”
I made no answer, so shocked was I.
“You would rather remain the property of my brother?”
“Oh, no, Titch, I would rather be your property,” said I, eagerly. I did not understand the pained look that crossed his face. (85)

When Titch and Wash crash their balloon onto a ship I almost put the book down. It’s just so ridiculously convenient that a boat is right there, but I was still invested in the story so I kept reading. I suppose it’s possible that Titch could guide their failing craft to its deck…in a storm. By the time they reach Virginia, there’s already a WANTED poster for Wash’s return. The reward: $1,000. Titch tears down the sign. Due to a severely-scarred face, Wash is easy to find, but no one recognizes him. A thousand dollars buys a lot of things, but only one poster.

After the painful rigors of the first third of the book, Wash and Titch now seem to wear a type of plot armor. They sail to the Arctic and immediately run into a man to take them to Titch’s father. After an unsatisfying reunion, Titch wanders into the snow and disappears. He survives, which is annoying for two reasons: 1) the weird rumors after his disappearance that ultimately lead nowhere, and 2) the fact that his survival is completely unexplained. No one in the party found him (they looked) and Wash didn’t see him again before leaving. Titch later claims to have seen what went down in the camp after his disappearance in ways that sound like some kind of astral projection (what?).

Some years later, Wash is found by a bounty hunter when there’s no longer anyone to pay the $1,000. How is it that he can be identified years later in a crowd in a different country, but no one near the Virginia sign noticed him? The biggest stroke of luck, though, is when Wash meets a woman at the shore. They’re both there to paint so they strike up a friendship. Would you expect that she’s the daughter of a famous person whose books/illustrations are Wash’s especial favorite? If that doesn’t make you shout, “Small world!” in annoyance, this may be the book for you.

Wash works with this family to create the first aquarium, Ocean House. In doing so, he outlines the primary struggle of his life, that even though he is skilled and a valuable part of Ocean House, nothing will carry his name:

My name, I understood, would never be known in the history of the place. It would be Goff, not a slight, disfigured black man, who would forever be celebrated as the father of Ocean House. When I allowed myself to truly think of it, a tightness rose behind my eyes. Goff was not a bad man—he did not like to take credit for my discoveries in principle, but I understood he was getting older, and that the desire to make a late sensation burned deep in him. And I understood too the greater conundrum—for how could I, a Negro eighteen years old, with no formal scientific training, approach the committee on my own, or even be seen as an equal in the enterprise? (253)

The social commentary is strong in Washington Black, but the surface level is dry. As Wash travels the world to find Titch (and other things), he seems to teleport from place to place. There are tedious, non-revealing conversations stretched to fill entire chapters, but onerous journeys are inexplicably footnotes. There’s something off in the proportions of this book.

The exact moment I checked out was when, at the end of one chapter, Wash reads that someone is going to be hanged the following day. By his reaction, it’s someone he knows, but the reader isn’t told the name. There’s an ENTIRE CHAPTER with him going about his day and talking with others before he attends the hanging and the reader learns who’s on the scaffold.

To be honest, I’ve never been the biggest fan of first-person narrators because of things like this. So many authors can’t help themselves: The character just found out a Thing, but I don’t want the reader to know it yet—how to increase the suspense? In theory, if the reader is invested in the character and the moment is well-described, the character and reader should both feel an emotional jolt at learning the Thing. Isn’t this a large point of first-person narration in the first place—to make the reader seriously imagine the perspective, experience, and emotions of the narrator? Why block the reader in this way?

Overall: 4.2 (out of 5). The strong focus and sharp characters of the first third are gradually replaced by a meandering plot and progressively less-interesting characters. I understand that Titch’s disappearance has an impact on Wash, but I disliked how the Search for Titch overwhelmed the back half of the novel. Is this intentionally meta? Can Wash not be the center of his story in much the same way he can’t put his name on Ocean House?

7 Comments on “Review: Washington Black

  1. A great review! Like you I enjoyed the writing, but also felt that the second half of the book was the weakest. In fact, I did not really like this book (but I will save my rant for my own review) 🙂 With all my criticisms I just cannot give a four star rating to this book because I will not be true to myself no matter if the whole literary community disagrees.

    I particularly agree with you on how “small” the world ended up to be in the book. Too unbelievable, right? It was like a child mapping the world: “I would like to go to London!” “I would like to go to Morocco”! “Oh, look, he is the man I used to know before!”, meeting him half the planet away. It should be sold as fantasy – perhaps Wash dreamt his life up and he is still on plantation in reality.

    • I look forward to reading your rant! This was a very difficult book to rate because of how much it slid downhill in the second half. I’m never sure what to make of books that are half good. The first half is propping up my high rating because it had a few moments that packed such an emotional wallop that I was blown away by Edugyan’s prose. In some ways, the second half feels as though it were written by someone else.

      I’m also glad to hear you say that you thought the travel was too quick! There were a few chapters toward the end that I couldn’t help skimming a bit and wondered if things were speeding up because I was reading faster… 🙂

      • I understand completely. The last chapters I was skimming too, and then forcing myself to go back for a full read. Not a good sign for a book, let alone one included in the Booker Prize shortlist.

  2. You identified one of my pet peeves in narration. If a story is told in first person, then I want to discover, understand, feel etc., with that person. Manipulating the reveal reduces the impact for me versus increasing it. Also, I love your “plot armor” comment.

    • Exactly! I put the book down for a second and thought, “Who’s telling this story anyway?” It seemed like such an odd choice when it’s very clear that a lot of thought went into shaping Wash’s voice and personality. Why push him aside at an important moment?

  3. I had to return the book to the library unread because I just couldn’t get to it. Now that I’ve read your review, I’m not sure I’ll order it again.

    • It’s an odd read because I don’t think I would necessarily recommend it to anyone, but I’m glad I read it. It continues to get a lot of good reviews and I would have wondered about it. For the first third or so, the prose really is strikingly good.

      Of reviewers who didn’t like this book, most of them said they enjoyed Half-Blood Blues by the same author, so I look forward to reading that one.

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