Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (Literary / Historical Fiction)

Writing: 5+/5 Plot: 5/5 Characters: 5/5

Shockingly good — one of the best books I’ve read in years. The plot follows Washington Black — born a slave on a brutal Barbados plantation in 1818, he becomes a naturalist illustrator, scientist, and inventor via circumstance mingled with aptitude and fortitude. The book defies categorization — it is simultaneously a wild adventure story and a personal reflection on a life propelled by both trauma and serendipity.

The story careens from the Barbados plantation to the open seas to the Arctic to England and beyond. The Victorian pursuit of knowledge and invention permeates every page (especially pertaining to marine life). The relationships across race, sex, and status in a violent and yet rapidly evolving time period are examined in every possible way. I love the depth of that exploration and what feels (to me) like a fair portrayal of the complexities of every one of those relationships — the individuals, the culture, and the time period all coming to bear and the bald fact of each person interpreting behaviors of others in very personal ways — there is no absolute truth, only personal truth. Wash himself is aware that his perceptions are probably flawed and yet that does not change them in any way.

The writing is Pulitzer quality — absolutely stunning — one of the few books I’ve read without skimming a single sentence. I rarely read books about slavery or the Holocaust — I’ve read too many and just don’t want to go there anymore. I picked up this highly recommended book with the intention of reading a couple of pages and then giving it back. I didn’t put it down for 75 pages (and then only because I was called to dinner!).

Highly, highly, recommended.

Here are too many quotes — just know that I winnowed these down from many, many, more:

“Moistening my lips, I sat at a table in the soft, monstrous upholstered chair, across from a white man who possessed the power of life and death over me. I was but a child of the plantations, and as I met his gaze with my own, my mouth soured with dread.”

“The skin round his eyes tightened. He shook his head. ‘Negroes are God’s creatures also, with all due rights and freedoms. Slavery is a moral stain against us. If anything will keep white men from heaven, it is this.’ “

“Christopher Wilde had not your best interests at heart. You were a cause to him, not a person — however much he protested otherwise. You were something to be used to further his own crusade, his own sense of goodness.”

“I understood. He meant that I had been a slave, and that the savagery of that past left me a ruined being, like some wretched thing pulled smoking from a fire. It did not matter that he accepted me as a thinking man, that he respected my mind, or even that he was in the midst of taking a favour from me. I was black-skinned and burnt, as disfigured inside as without…”

“I had long seen science as the great equalizer. No matter one’s race, or sex, or faith — there were facts in the world waiting to be discovered. How little thought I’d given to the ways in which it might be corrupted.”

“He was a wretched man, a pox, but I did not rejoice at the brutality of his end, however well deserved. He too had been a boy once, desirous of understanding the world. And how he had wasted all his talents, all his obvious facility for learning, twisting every new fact and arranging it into senselessness and cruelty. He had spent years trying to cultivate an ethos, and despite possessing a clear intelligence, he had lived his whole life in avoidable savagery.”

“…her silence was marked by a held-in rage that I have only now, several years later, come to understand as the suppression of will. For she was a ferociously intelligent woman, and it strained her to have to conceal it.”

“The sky was still black where we were, but the wind was already hurling us seaward. I watched the half-cut cane fields in the faint light, the white scars of harvest glistening like the part in a woman’s hair.”

“He was sixty years old at least, with pulsing red hands and extravagant wrinkles.”

“And despite all, his dark eyes seemed to me soft, restless, thoughtful, with a kindness so rarely granted to one like me that, meeting his eyes, I shivered.”

“How was it possible, thought I, that we lived in such nightmare and all the while a world of men continued just over the horizon, men such as these, in ships moving in any direction the wind might lead them? I thought how Titch had risked everything for me. I knew he had preserved my person despite the death of his own flesh and blood, and I knew, too, how strange it felt to be alive, and whole, and astonishingly worth saving.”

“After a long moment of trying to muster my courage to speak, I remained silent.”

“He had a thick black mustache and a very pale, grey mouth, as if his lips suffered for sunlight.”

“I saw him, and I kneeled dripping in the low entrance, staring. For he was short, fat, and under his scraggly whiskers was a face very much alive and quite brutally ugly.”

“For there could be no belonging for a creature such as myself, anywhere: a disfigured black boy with a scientific turn of mind and a talent on canvas, running, always running, from he dimmest of shadows.”

“Staring into her sharp face, her brown front teeth edging over her lower lip, I felt a kind of despair, sensing the solitary mornings of the world fade from me, and grow dim.”

“Sometimes when I spoke she’d stare on with quiet ferocity — but it was not pity I sensed there, nor morbid fascination, but something like a greed to fully enter my consciousness.”

“What an agony it was, to see them together: old Goff, earnest and probing and high-minded and utterly oblivious; Tanna, sharp-tongued and brilliant and stifled and yet somehow devoted to that self-absorbed man. It was clear to me that both were intelligent, kind people, but careless with each other’s feelings, and poles apart in temperament. I liked both immensely; I hated their way together.”

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