Washington Black (Esi Edugyan)

I am rarely in tune with any list of Best Sellers. A quick look at a list of 2020’s best sellers tells me that I started listening to but couldn’t finish 1, am watching the TV adaptation of another (would it even be on the list if. . .) and my mother gave me hers that I might read for the sake of the controversy surrounding it.

In my world, Washington Black should be on top of that list. Any list. All lists. I give the New York Times credit. They named it as one of the 10 best books of the year. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. (I don’t even want to look to see what won; it would not be good for my blood pressure.) I talk to a lot of people online and in person about what they are reading, and no one has mentioned this. I loved, loved, loved her last book, Half-Blood Blues (always shortlisted for the Booker Prize – always a bridesmaid, but a winner of the 2011 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award), but that was in 2011.

This was worth the wait.

It is the tale of George Washington Black, a slave, and it takes him (and us) from Barbados to the Artic and many places in between as we watch “Wash” grow up in and with the world around him. This is one of those books that you will completely fall into. If someone says something while you are reading, you will be hurtled back into the present day in a most unwelcome manner.

It is violent without being gruesome, it is scientific without being too reliant on jargon, it is a love story without being sappy, it is magical without being absurd, and it is, without qualification, a great, great book.
At one point, I thought I saw where things were going and I thought, “That would be too much of a coincidence.” Edugyan knew. I had to smile out of respect (though it was far from a smile-worthy moment).

Normally, I write reviews soon after I finish books so I don’t lose track of details. But I wanted to sit with this one for a while. I’ve run through a whole list of adjectives in my mind over the last few days, but the one I keep returning to is ‘true.’ This is the truest depiction of humanity that I have encountered in a long, long time. Even here, Edugyan is ahead of me. One character asks another: “What is the truth of any life? I doubt even the man who lives it can say.”

If for no other reason than I need to talk with someone about it, you need to read this book.

Charles Ellenbogen is the author of the teaching memoir, THIS ISN’T THE MOVIES: 25 YEARS IN THE CLASSROOM, and teaches high school English in Cleveland, Ohio. He lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio with Kirsten, his wife, Zoe, their daughter, Ezra, their son, Lincoln, their dog, and Chocolate Scales, their snake.