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Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Reviewed by Menaka Raman-Wilms

Washington Black is a compelling and captivating story. The book begins in 1830 and follows the story of George Washington Black, a young boy born a slave in Barbados, who is working on a sugar cane plantation. His life, however, takes an unexpected turn when Christopher Wilde, the brother of the plantation’s master, recruits Washington to help with scientific experiments. Washington begins to sketch, read, and develop a fascination with the natural world. Though his talents and curiosity develop quickly, Wilde and Washington are soon forced to flee the island.

Washington then begins a series of journeys that take him far away from the life he used to know; first aboard Wilde’s cloud-cutter flying machine, then aboard ships and dogsleds. Travelling to the Arctic, Nova Scotia, London and then Morocco, Washington works to negotiate life as a free man and carve out a place for himself where he can develop his studies of ocean life.

Washington Black is an engaging and interesting read. It is compelling precisely because it is so unique a story, and so novel in its melding of different worlds. The Caribbean cane plantation, with its hard labour and quick cruelties, is juxtaposed against the desolation of the Arctic and the underwater world: these contrasts allow Washington to experience different ways of existence and constantly challenge his ideas of what it means to be free.

Edugyan’s writing is precise and evocative. She finds unique and arresting ways to describe even the most common of things, and manages to create entire landscapes with her words. The book runs over 400 pages, but it is segmented into sections and short chapters that move the story forward at a steady pace, from one adventure to the next.

If anything, Washington Black may be trying to explore too many worlds at once. The story moves constantly – and sometimes rapidly – from one place to the next, without always allowing enough time for the reader to fully immerse themselves in the experience. Washington’s encounter with the Underground Railroad, for example, constituted only a short passage, even though the snippets of story raised in this part of the novel were engaging enough to have been more thoroughly explored. Since these short segments can sometimes distract from the more prominent narratives, especially since the reader isn’t sure if these passages will develop into significant story-lines or not, the book may have been better to focus more on the key parts of Washington’s travels.

However, this small point is overshadowed by the sheer novelty of the story and journeys in Washington Black. The book stands apart from others because it brings together a diversity of ideas, explores different forms of love and devotion, and turns in unexpected directions. Ultimately, it is a work filled with imagination and wonder.

Washington Black is by Patrick Crean Editions (an imprint of HarperCollins Canada).

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