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Steve’s 2018 Booker 1- Esi Edugyan 'Washington Black'

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Wednesday, 1 Aug 2018, 20:06

Steve’s 2018 Booker Longlist Readings

1.      Esi Edugyan Washington Black Serpent’s Tale, London


This year I’ve decided not to set out to read all of the longlist but just those I had not acquired some prejudice about (I’m not going to justify it as other than that).

Washington Black is that lovely thing: a truly wonderful ‘read’. The narrative has pace and I felt motivated throughout, somewhat like ‘Wash’, himself, to know more, including what might happen next. There seems to be a lot to that motivation not least a desire to go some origin that might explain the action and relationships of the novel, which are almost cruel in their arbitrary absence of any significant or satisfying communication. In this world, people refuse to explain themselves or their actions – and often, when they do, it is too late. The end comes up with many revelations but these do not set out to make us feel satisfied that all is resolved, or even that it will be in any possible or predictable future for the characters. It is full, if of anything, of great incompletion – of a sense that the meanings it offers (for reader and characters) are nothing ever more than transitory truths. Sometimes I felt that the only purpose of the book was to keep you willing (even eager) to go on and not to give up, as some of its characters just give up in a way that seems to them and us as fated. The word and action of reading remains important throughout the novel – not least in the element of bildungsroman that makes up part of its narrator-hero’s being.

It is this deep lack of purpose or function, allied to a poorly motivated (or perhaps) over-motivated drive onwards for the ‘reader’, that lasts with me in the novel. Yet I say that with admiration. This novelist has her finger to the pulse of a world that may be reducing itself to non-communicating personal drives. Its best characters try to give meaning to their actions – the central character Titch (resembling a hero from Jules Verne or Wells) gives himself up to anti-slavery but somehow no-one in the novel finds his motivation authentic. Indeed I wonder how authentic anyone ever is, even the tremendous character (more significant in her absence than presence) of Poor Kit. As a result I did not know how to take the treatment of the slavery issue, which is there, is cruel and which ends – almost peters out – with no-one left to understand how and why it motivated them on either side. Something in me rebels against this treatment. However, I could believe that this rebellion too is being tested for its authenticity, as the character Tanna constantly tests the ideas that made Titch what he was, finding (I thought) no more conviction in him or herself than do we. But to lack conviction is not to lack life and interest and this character has this.

More importantly so does the eponymous narrator, Wash. He fascinates and never fully yields what drives him, though he is often challenged to do so – sometimes by being grossly misread by others. He exists somehow just to move on. There is sometimes some spark of residual anger at being a forgotten black element in a white world but this anger,  even when it emerges as confusion or deep sadness, is never felt that deeply as we read. We don’t penetrate this character. One of the most playful moments when characters investigate each other is Titch’s choice of Wash as ‘his’. Everyone wants to know why he does it? No answers satisfy – he just wants someone with enough ‘ballast’ to be carried by the tale. Various people including Kit and Erasmus, the slave master, guess that it might be for sexual reasons but this is never other than offered. It is never said to be the truth nor, I felt, denied. Either way would be, for this novel, too simple and offer too much easy sense of conclusion or settlement of meaning.

On top of this is the variety of the novel as it flits (by various transport – sometimes quite beyond belief) from Barbados to the slaving South of the US, to the Arctic, London, Amsterdam, ending as the characters begin to think of leaving Morocco. The narrative is based on trying to find people or lose them, to know their motives or escape other people’s conclusions about these. As a result characters and places and events all become a bit difficult to know.

For me, this novel makes me ask, what gives quality to a novel. There is excellent but not self-consciously ‘fine’ writing here and it is all the better for that. It is not literary at the level of its sentences, the test John Banville applies, though every sentence seems correctly judged and often has lurking beauty. It is not because of the narrative form – it ends with as much drive as it begins I thought. It seems lacking in some way. But after  all, I thought – maybe it is what is lacking that makes it a great novel of an age where literally nothing can ever be authentically resolved – even the drives which created and maintained slavery which might go for zoos as much as incarcerations of people. There are wonderful parts here about aquatic zoos and feeling fish – even an octopus, whose motivation is as unfathomable as most of the characters.

And the Cloud-Cutter! Don’t forget that useless but wonderful contraption. One thing for certain. Whatever value you finally attribute to this novel, you will read it with great pleasure, even when the ‘life’ of its characters is most, ‘gauzy, drifting, strange’ (316).


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