The reader can almost see what is coming ... The Canadian novelist Esi Edugyan has other ideas, however. She is determined that the fate of Washington Black will not be dictated by history, that the novel instead will give him permission to soar above his circumstances ... In this portrait of the artist as a young man, Edugyan demands that the reader take the mixtures in Washington seriously ... Edugyan is willing to take great risks to release the reader from any easy or predictable interpretations of Washington. She is not afraid to allow him to have thoughts and knowledge that seem oddly beyond his command. That is part of his ambiguous power in the book ... There are moments when the writing soars, when Washington’s experience of the natural world is rendered in a prose that openly, almost exultantly, strives to evoke beauty ... Edugyan is careful, nonetheless, that her flying machine of a novel not fly too freely into the upper air ... His prose can be vivid, sometimes fervid, but it can also be measured ... What Edugyan has done in Washington Black is to complicate the historical narrative by focusing on one unique and self-led figure.
The beauty here lies in Edugyan’s language, which is precise, vivid, always concerned with wordcraft and captivating for it. Images of slave life are the most powerful of the book, and Big Kit is a formidable creation—a quietly seething figure rather like the strong, suffering women from Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women, and again, one wishes that Edugyan had not decided to abandon her so early on. But the story is broader and more ambitious in its scope ... His story becomes increasingly mythic, heading beyond freedom, toward empowerment. It’s not what readers who are wedded to realism might want, but Edugyan’s fiction always stays strong, beautiful and beguiling.
These deep dives into the turmoil of Wash’s soul are bracing but brief, quickly abandoned for the next fantastical plot turn. Ms. Edugyan is such a fluent, intelligent, natural writer that there’s little doubt she could succeed producing popular page-turners. But I’d miss the texture and emotional intensity she sometimes reaches here (and which were on fuller display in her gritty Nazi-era novel Half-Blood Blues). The story’s ambiguous conclusion suggests her uncertainty about which road to take. Wash has jeopardized everything to reunite with Titch, and a powerful confrontation about their shared history seems promised—and then isn’t delivered. The abrupt, unresolved ending leaves Wash, like the reader, hanging in midair.
These events unfold with a Tarantino-esque savagery, our narrator staggering through each awful moment. Yet Edugyan’s prose wraps elegantly over each blow. She has a taste for incessant similes, some of which are memorable, while others reduce rather than increase the immediacy of experiences ... Here, instead, we are looking at the art directly from the point of view of the artist, and although Edugyan tries to give the flavour of the art Black creates, it is almost too exquisite to be imaginable ... As the book develops, its coincidences and denouements appear to suggest something more like myth than realism...The increasingly magical tone is jarring, given the dark realities confronted in the beginning of the book ... I found myself wishing she had spent more time examining the repercussions of such complex realities on the inner lives of her characters, and less time on the mazes of her narrative ... The journey that Edugyan takes us on is fascinating and enjoyable, but rather like the hot air balloon that took Black from Barbados, it sometimes drifts off course.
Washington Black is a terrific new narrative about enslavement, but that description fails to do it justice ... In its rich details and finely tuned ear for language, the book creates a virtual world, immersing the reader in antebellum America and Canada as well as in Victorian England ... the trek is fraught with danger and thoroughly engaging. Edugyan captures the Arctic so artfully, you want to reach for your parka to stay warm ... More important than travelogue, however, is Washington Black’s interrogation of human attachment ... refreshing in its oddities and unconventionalities.
Shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, Washington Black depicts slavery — unsparingly — but it’s about freedom ... Washington Black is a classic Bildungsroman in many ways, albeit one that subverts or transcends the genre’s tropes at critical junctures ... In Washington Black, Edugyan writes within the constraints of her time period aptly. The novel’s towering achievement rests in its simultaneous realism and imagination. Wash’s candid narration grounds the story ... The more extraordinary his life becomes, the more Edugyan brings out his complexity — a duality which showcases the author’s gift for emotional precision ... Edugyan’s prose is elegant, nuanced, but her fury at this fact — the passions lost over centuries of agony — powers through like a godly storm. She confronts slavery’s legacy with acuity, depth, and staggering grief.
Washington Black — one of the most anticipated books of the year — should finally get American readers to wake up to this extraordinary novelist across our Northern border ... Washington Black is an engrossing hybrid of 19th-century adventure and contemporary subtlety, a rip-roaring tale of peril imbued with our most persistent strife ... Wash’s wide-eyed adolescence gives way to hard-won wisdom to produce a narrative voice that’s tinged with equal parts wonder and sorrow ... it’s those brittle tensions between the privileged and the powerless that Edugyan explores so elegantly in Washington Black ... Washington Black doesn’t suggest that slave and master suffer equally, of course, but it raises provocative questions about the way privilege poisons even those who benefit from it ... Edugyan is a magical writer.
...[a] soaring new novel ... More than a tale of human bondage, it’s also an enthralling meditation on the weight of freedom, wrapped in a rousing adventure story stretching to the ends of the earth. It is also a bracing tribute to the indefatigable spirit of black people ... A beautiful and affecting writer, Edugyan manages to keep this rush of emotions and improbable scenarios both grounded and compelling ... Edugyan doesn’t hedge on the savagery of slavery, but neither does she revel in it. It’s not uncommon for works about the so-called peculiar institution to devolve into a kind of torture porn ... This is always a difficult line to toe, yet one Edugyan navigates without resorting to facile clichés ... I worried that we might plummet into 'white savior' territory. Yet again, the author finds the right balance for the character.
...extraordinary ... Edugyan is unsparing about how grim life is for human 'property' on Erasmus’ plantation, and Wash is a child who fully grasps his plight ... Edugyan is a marvelous writer — lyrical, fanciful, subtle, fond of paradox — and Washington Black reads like a picaresque epic laced with persistent threat ... a powerful, twisting work of historical fiction.
A cinematic epic of slavery and freedom, it’s also a tale of high adventure and scientific endeavour ... In keeping with the novels of its time period, Washington Black features love and loss, vivid characterization and plenty of plot twists. Edugyan’s prose is somewhat formal in diction, but also sensuously evocative ... Washington Black is both engaging and deeply affecting.
Here Edugyan transforms Washington Black from a Grand Guignol of slavery’s horrors into a lush, exhilarating travelogue reminiscent of Jules Verne, full of improbable events and encounters but with a splinter lodged in its heart ... Edugyan has a chameleonic knack for adapting her novels to the periods in which they’re set ... In Washington Black, Edugyan suggests the diction of another time without attempting to replicate it ... The voice that Edugyan has conjured for her narrator is articulate, precise to the point of fussiness, yet subject also to fits of melancholy, emotional agony, and ravishing transports at the glories of the natural world.
Through these clashes of perspective, Edugyan illustrates the complexity of identity and explores what defines us. Is it what surrounds us, such as family? Or is it what is inside us? ... In her elegant, nuanced writing style, Edugyan unfolds Wash’s experiences as he realizes his freedom ... Throughout the story, Edugyan weaves the quality of artistic talent.
In Washington Black, she takes what might have been a historical novel, a slavery narrative resting solidly on true accounts of plantation life, and spins it in the direction of steampunk. This won’t trouble readers of science fiction, accustomed to tackling novels embedded in history but obsessed with the technology and innovations of the era, but others might stumble as Washington Black takes flight ... Edugyan’s magnificent and strikingly visual prose carries the reader along a certain distance—this is a tale to be entered without disbelief or doubt, despite the contrivances and coincidences that stitch together the rough cloth of the plot ... But as Wash and Mister Titch are driven to and fro by a gleefully baroque series of unfortunate events—Wash pursued by a slave-hunter, Titch haunted by the ghosts of acts of cruelty that he and his brother once committed—the novel stands in danger of losing a more subtle track ... But by placing a black slave at the heart and centre of this epic romp, by making Wash the explorer of lands, science and art, Edugyan reclaims long-lost terrain in this ambitious, headspinning work.
In Washington Black, Edugyan has created a wonder of an adventure story, powered by the helium of fantasy, but also by the tender sensibility of its aspiring young hero, Wash Black ... Certainly, much of the pleasure of reading Washington Black derives from Edugyan's ingenious storytelling gifts, but her novel is more than just a buoyant bauble ... Washington Black is an unconventional and often touching novel about the search for transcendence above categories.
The eponymous hero of Canadian novelist Esi Edugyan's Booker Prize shortlisted novel recalls Charles Dickens' Pip in his pluck, intelligence and wild reversals of fortune ... Edugyan conveys with startling immediacy the horrors slavery visits on the body, as well as the shackles it places upon the mind. She invites the reader to consider how many scientists' contributions may have been written out of the record.
It is impossible for the reader not to hang on to Wash’s every word; Edugyan brings alive the boy’s sights, sounds and his moment-to-moment sense of impending danger and menace. Lesser authors, for instance, might simply dispense with the minor character description of 'house porter;' Edugyan instead pulls readers into the scene ... Washington Black is a taut and suspenseful story, not a celebration ... an astounding novel, carefully crafted at the level of each word choice, as well as the overall themes it scrutinizes.
[Alice] Burns writes exceedingly well [in Milkman]but Esi Edugyan, born of Ghanaian parents in Canada, is better. She has a more limpid and more colorful style. There is more imagination in her writing and in the end the reader can feel quite intoxicated by her evocative but light language ... Washington Black is a marvelous tale ... Washington Black is a rich, absorbing tale.
The telling is couched in a gentlemanly language of detailed recollection. Its personalized claim on slavery’s annals summons up interesting company. Its associations radiate intellectual and social concerns of a time swept up in the study of nature, the inquiries of science, the urge toward exploration, and the fray of politics. The tensions of class reverberate, as do the meaning of family, the vitality of art, the pressure points of love, and the mystery of the self ... Some of Edugyan’s best writing surfaces in Wash’s exhilaration at seeing nature up close, and his triumphantly revealing its stunning realities ... Her words light a fire under arresting experiences and cloud-clearing ascensions to new heights ... When obliteration tries to leave its calling card questions always arise about whether to intervene in prevailing decisions about posterity’s contents. Washington Black gives life to such choices, siding with better judgments, and contributing a moving chronicle.
The story is memorable not only in its voice but also in its evocation of the horrors of slavery; and it is brilliant, too, in its construction of character. Wash and Titch are so alive as to be unforgettable, as is the story of their tangled relationship. This important novel from the author of the superb Half-Blood Blues (2012) belongs in every library.
Edugyan's ability to weave science and naturalistic observation through her writing is inspiring. Her understanding of the interconnection between science, society, and race is especially poignant ... Edugyan points toward colonial theory without critically addressing affirmations of white power. Edugyan misses the opportunity to dismantle whiteness while Wash's affective association with Titch verges on fetishism ... relies too heavily on pathos and is inundated with an impalpable mawkishness ... does provoke readers to question the idea of freedom ... Despite Washington Black's beautiful and imaginative storytelling, its missteps are hard to avoid. Where the novel excels at revisioning a history where achievement is obtainable, it also fails to address critical race conversations.
Edugyan displays as much ingenuity and resourcefulness as her main characters in spinning this yarn, and the reader’s expectations are upended almost as often as her hero’s. A thoughtful, boldly imagined ripsnorter that broadens inventive possibilities for the antebellum novel.
Edugyan’s magnificent third novel again demonstrates her range and gifts ... The novel’s patience feels essential: the characters’ many passages from painful endings to tentative rebirths are necessarily slow and searching. Crafted in supple, nuanced prose, Edugyan’s novel is both searing and beautiful.