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BookBrowse Reviews Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

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Washington Black

by Esi Edugyan

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan X
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2018, 352 pages
    Apr 2019, 400 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Natalie Vaynberg
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About this Book



Part adventure novel, part travelogue, part historical fiction, this is a story about a boy who rises from slavery to become a free man of the world.

Sometimes you just want a good adventure story. One that does not follow a predictable pattern and keeps the pages turning. There are many such stories, but few of them bring along the kind of depth and observation that Esi Edugyan brings to Washington Black.

Edugyan weaves a thrilling yarn that unfolds slowly, peeling back layers and revealing hidden depths. This is, at once, a coming of age tale, an exploration of slavery from inside and outside the plantation, and a skip-along through a variety of scientific discoveries. Washington Black, born a slave in Barbados in the 1830s, never expected much beyond a life of hard toil and pain. Yet he was rescued, suddenly, by the enigmatic brother of his master – a scientist in need of an assistant. Together they traverse the world, from the West Indies all the way to the Arctic Circle and beyond. Washington becomes a man of learning and an artist; he blazes a path that is unlike any he ever believed possible.

Washington is a compelling character because he not only escapes the bonds of slavery, he also participates in the latest scientific discoveries of his time. Given the tools to analyze and record, he feels both the thrill of his new life and its stark juxtaposition to what he's left behind. The resulting excitement and guilt are entirely believable and fully fleshed out throughout the course of the novel.

Beyond her strong characterization, Edugyan just plain writes well. Her story is bright and fresh, avoiding common clichés and building anticipation for the next bend in the story's road. Her descriptions of the Arctic cold and the dry heat of the desert are palpably real. What's more, she makes Washington's interests our own – many readers will likely spend some time exploring the marine life he studies or the aeronautic devices of the 19th century with which he comes into close contact. From the first page you are fully invested, ready and willing to follow the young protagonist wherever he may lead.

Washington Black is a study of a human life, with all its horrors, digressions and surprises. Read it for a good story, for a little bit of wonder or a good dose of thought-provoking narrative. Whatever your reason, read it.

Reviewed by Natalie Vaynberg

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in October 2018, and has been updated for the June 2019 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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