I am a huge fan of Esi Edugyan’s Man Booker-nominated Half-Blood Blues, so I was eagerly anticipating her next book. When I heard that Washington Black was releasing, I began planning out how I was going to get myself a copy as close to the release date as possible and positively rejoiced when I scored a loan of an early digital copy for reviewing purposes.
The fact that I’m only getting to that review now, months after the book’s release, probably gives you a hint as to how the experience of reading it went for me. Try as I might, I just couldn’t get into it. The temporary digital copy expired when I was almost halfway through the book. So I decided to try the same approach I used with The Female Persuasion: I got on the hold list for an audio copy through Libby, my library app.
Fast forward to January 2019, when the audio finally became available. Unlike the experience I had with The Female Persuasion, the audio helped me get through this one (even if the narrator’s voice frequently felt like overkill). But even though I’ve finished it now, I’ve held my review for at least two weeks so I could try to get my thoughts together and come up with a reason I feel so “meh” about a book that was on so many best-of-2018 lists, from an author whose previous book is one of my most frequently recommended, no less.
The best I can come up with is that I felt underwhelmed by Washington Black because so much of it reminded me of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize winner The Underground Railroad. Both are deep dives into race and slavery in the Civil War era with elements of the fantastical. Both have episodic structures in which the protagonist finds him/herself in a different location experiencing a different point of view about race or slavery in the context of that time. Both protagonists are chased by a fearsome slavecatcher. Both novels explore the extreme dehumanizing effects of slavery and systemic racism, and in doing so reveal some uncomfortable truths about how little we have progressed over time.
Perhaps this familiarity would not have felt like such a problem for me if it felt like Washington Black was improving on the form or doing some of these things better than Underground Railroad. But I don’t feel that it does either. Furthermore, Washington Black falls into some of my most frequent irritations with historical fiction: it gets very caught up fictionalizing the invention of something commonplace today, and it has characters reflect modern ideas or beliefs that would not have been common at the time.
To be fair, there is a poignancy to Washington Black’s attempts to create the world’s first aquarium (devising filtration systems to keep aquatic animals alive in the process) because Edugyan uses the experience to show how the achievements of black people have historically been hidden from history and credited to the white people around them. And maybe the parts of the book that deal with Washington figuring out how aquariums should work only feel cheesy to me because I have a very specific pet peeve around this topic. But the fact remains: it felt cheesy to me.
And yes, Edugyan does have plenty of characters who reflect more common beliefs for the time. But when one character laments that creationism would be taught in a school, it prompted me to immediately run to Google to see if that was a term people would have understood at the time. It turns out it did exist then, but only in a very specific context regarding philosophical opinions about the creation of the soul. Edugyan uses the term in its modern context: referring to a Bible-based curriculum specifically designed to counteract the science of evolution in schools. This context did not exist until the 1920s.
If that sounds nit-picky, I agree with you: it absolutely is. But it’s an example of my pet peeve in action. Things like this make me roll my eyes and take me out of the book I’m reading. And it happens a fair amount in Washington Black.
And here’s the other thing: nit-picking aside, I just didn’t enjoy the plot progression of this book. I saw every one of its twists coming and I didn’t think they were handled in an interesting or thought-provoking way.
Try as I might, I just haven’t been able to get on the Washington Black train. I respect that many people disagree with me and I can see why they enjoy the book as much as they do, but at the end of the day I just didn’t feel the same way. I’m still very interested in seeing what Esi Edugyan does next, because she remains a phenomenal writer. I’m just going to keep pushing Half-Blood Blues instead of Washington Black.