I recently finished reading the eighth Tournament of Books 2019 book, Esi Edugyan’s “Washington Black“, which is running against Heidi Sopinka’s “The Dictionary of Animal Languages” in the third round of the competition.
This is the only Tournament of Books book that I heard of before the competition. It made quite a splash when it came out last year, a sort of slave/coming of age narrative with steam punk slapped on for flavour. Sounds interesting, right?
The first half of this novel is. The story of Washington’s childhood (if you can call it that) as a slave, Kit’s story, Faith plantation, Barbados and the Wilde family — they’re all vibrant, alive, speaking volumes through history. Washington’s escape, his travels, his survivor’s guilt, they’re all fascinating, complex, well written, until Washington reaches Canada, where everything grinds to a halt. The narrative enters a kind of swampy ennui, characters become cardboard specimens viewed through milky, distorted glass, and the only thing that maintains the earlier vibrancy is the setting. It was as if all the narrative urge was drained out of this novel and Edugyan was working for a word quota. Slash the novel after the point where Christopher steps into the ice storm and you not only lose nothing, you end up with a better narrative. Christopher trapped and Washington free is more interesting than Christopher being a man-child unable to face the world and Washington chasing him to get no answers. And the “love story” between Tanna and Washington feels more like a last minute after thought than a believable, integral part of the tale.
This could have been an excellent novella, instead of an almost good novel that lost narrative steam halfway through. What a shame.