Book Review

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

acclaimed canadian steampunky slavery novel

Washington Black is a 2018 novel by the Canadian writer Esi Edugyan, and it did very well critically winning many awards and being shortlisted for many others. As Washington Black is a highly acclaimed recent local novel and I’m trying to ingratiate myself some more with the culture of this cold cold (though gradually warming) country, I thought I’d give it a go. Also, my lover’s mother lent this copy to me the last time I visited her house and I’m headed there next weekend, so I thought it would be an opportune time. Will give me something other than my dog to talk about, I suppose.

EDIT: it is now the other side of that weekend and I forgot to pack the book to return it and then, conscious of my faux-pas, didn’t bring up the fact that I’d read it. What a fool plagued by regret that I am I am I am…

I’m transferring back into underemployment this week, too. I repeated a recurring mistake from my own past lives (as if I’d never learned anything) and took the first job I could find, rather than the first job I could find that was appropriate for me to have. It’s fine, I’m beyond it now. I’m a millennial, I’m used to having multiple small jobs. One of the small ones just wasn’t small enough, so I’ve cut it out, like an infected toe. I’ll find another (in the metaphor I’m a starfish so can grow back a new toe). In broad sweeps I’m quite apathetic about my own life, which in many ways is pathetic, isn’t it?

EDIT: I am now at the other end of that week and I’m trying to look for more work while also trying to catch up on the creative pursuits that I let slide during the previous two months of living on the trams. I don’t really think I’ve achieved anything, other than making a live album of myself, which doesn’t count. Actually, I went and did a spoken word open mic night. So that’s something. Something something something. Not much, but something.

I’m still waiting for my state-funded healthcare to kick in (nearly nearly nearly) so I can try and find a therapist here. Maybe that won’t even be covered??? Maybe I’ll need to work so much that I have no life in order to afford the therapy that reminds me that the pursuit of Mammon is hollow [for me]. Life without a therapist is tough. A therapist is basically all the things I want from a friend without any of the responsibility of reciprocity and the fact that – because it’s a clear transactional relationship – I don’t have to feel guilt when me and the therapist lose touch, like I do with most of my friends.

EDIT: I’ve reached out to friends who I haven’t spoken to for months over this first week of underemployment, too, but I’ve found that stressful. Everyone responds too quickly to messages, to emails, to whatever: I can only really handle one small interaction per day with one person, like, any more than that and I start SPINNING OUT!!! I’m trying to catch up, but I get overwhelmed. I suppose I really need to try and find that cheap therapist. And more work. Lolololololol. Hahahaha.

Many weeks since I typed this statement on for the first time, the following still holds true: the only living creature I have spent time with more than once (aside from those I came to Canada with or the immediate family of my lover) is another dog. There are some pictures of us hanging out on mine and Cubby’s shared Instagram, which I’m sullying, polluting, devaluing, by incorporating other dogs into. The friend is the little spaniel. It’s good for Cubby to have a friend. He’s more sociable than I am.


Oh oh oh.

Washington Black is kinda like a steampunk slavery novel, or at least feels like it might be for quite a time from the beginning. Washington Black is a slave on a Caribbean plantation who is assigned to be the assistant of the plantation owner’s younger brother, who is trying to build an intercontinental hot air balloon. When Washington witnesses the suicide of a third member of this rich white family, he and the younger brother (who is secretly an abolitionist, though not a very committed one…) try to escape on the flying machine, though don’t get very far. What follows is an often – though not always – tense journey northwards along the East coast of the USA, then up to the Arctic Circle, before heading across the Atlantic. There’s intrigue and plot twists and gruesome violence and much peril and there’s lots of stuff later on about sea creatures and designing the first tropical aquarium in London Zoo. It’s fun. Pacey.

I dunno how (if at all) factual this is, but given the lack of an authorial note at the end I’m gonna presume that Washington is fully from Edugyan’s imagination, which is not a bad thing, of course. Washington Black is an evocative novel that spans the globe in the early 19th century and is thoroughly engaging throughout.


  • Not being as consistently violent or cruel or hopeless as slavery novels tend to be made it an “easier” read than I was anticipating: this is much more of an “adventure” novel than a “horror” novel, if those are appropriate terms to use here.


  • Like Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, Washington Black falls into the classic slavery novel pattern of centring the narrative on a genuinely exceptional human who happens to be a slave, which I think is a literary device that makes me uncomfortable because it’s clearly rooted in the fact that many others of my own pale demographic struggle to empathise with the tragedy of slavery when considering the plight of mere ordinary humans.


  • Again, also, Washington Black is a Canadian novel that unexpectedly plonks a section into the freezing north, which seems to be unavoidable here. It’s just so cold. I’m typing this on the second of May and when I was walking Cubby earlier I could see my breath in front of my face. It’s cold. Very cold. There’s a lot of warmth, however, in the country’s literature. (Nice segue!)


I enjoyed this, and will continue my Canadian literary adventures sooooon.

Download my weird live album via Bandcamp.

Order my raucous poetry collection via Open Pen.

Order my sad prose chapbook via Selcouth Station Press.

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2 comments on “Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

  1. Pingback: <em>Half-Blood Blues</em> by Esi Edugyan – Triumph Of The Now

  2. Pingback: Clotel or, the President’s Daughter by William Wells Brown – Triumph Of The Now

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