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2019 TOB Shortlist Books > Washington Black

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

Let's talk about it...


message 2: by Daniel (last edited Dec 19, 2018 03:01AM) (new)

Daniel Sevitt | 80 comments It's a solid book, an excellent shortlist contender, but I don't think it's a winner. Plenty to read, plenty to get one's teeth into, but it's a very traditional novel. I hate to lump books together just because they share some plot points, but, in the shadow of The Underground Railroad, it will be a while before another plantation tale breaks out, just as there needed to be a gap between The Known World and Whitehead's novel. I'm not saying this is how things should be, I'm observing that this is kinda how the hive mind operates.

Washington Black is good, just not good enough to win, probably.


message 3: by Janet (new)

Janet (justjanet) | 630 comments The same thing was said about it for the Man Booker but then you look at the actual winner and say “what were the judges thinking?”


message 4: by jo (last edited Dec 20, 2018 08:47PM) (new)

jo | 429 comments SPOILERISH.

actually this seems to me a totally different book from The Underground Railroad. i'm not saying this in the obvious sense that its theme and narrative arc are different, but i find it original and almost virtuoso in its crossing of so many genres. it goes from plantation, to adventure and caper, to exile/escape narrative, to scientific discovery story, to romance, and finally to family drama (the return to the father).

and the whole thing cast in the tone and even language of a 19th century novel.

so for that alone alone i'd say wow.

but also, it does some dramatic shit with whiteness, it seems to me, by framing the white characters, especially titch, as more than just slavers and catchers but as people with intense personal histories.

i was frankly blown away.


message 5: by Navi (new)

Navi (nvsahota) | 8 comments I actually enjoyed this a lot more than The Underground Railroad. It was a great adventure tale (seems weird to say this because of the dark tones!) that had me gripped until the very end. I read this a few months ago but it has stayed with me.

Side note: It won the Canadian Scotiabank Giller Prize this year!


message 6: by Janet (new)

Janet (justjanet) | 630 comments Sometimes I think books get disparaged because they are a joy to read. It’s like the lit community thinks if you don’t have to work hard to understand, it’s unworthy. Washington Black isn’t my favorite of the contenders I’ve read so far but I did find it enjoyable and on message.


message 7: by Navi (new)

Navi (nvsahota) | 8 comments Janet wrote: "Sometimes I think books get disparaged because they are a joy to read. It’s like the lit community thinks if you don’t have to work hard to understand, it’s unworthy. Washington Black isn’t my favo..."

I completely agree with you, Janet. There is a real divide between accessibility and "high brow literature". Washington Black is a book I would recommend to a wide audience of readers because it is so readable while still packing a punch.


message 8: by Caroline (new)

Caroline   | 150 comments I liked it so much, wish it could be a series. (Not that the ending rules out the author writing more with these characters.)

I just read Sy Montgomery's 'Soul of an Octopus' this year and it was Wash's octopus encounter that made me completely fall in love with this book.


message 9: by Ruthiella (last edited Dec 19, 2018 10:16PM) (new)

Ruthiella | 331 comments I agree with jo that Washington Black is an adventure novel based on 19th century models and nothing like The Underground Railroad in its style and themes. That said, I was blown away by Whitehead’s novel and only liked Edugyan’s.

I think Washington Black needed to be twice as long as it was (like a typically 19th century novel). Or maybe it would have worked better for me if it were told in 3rd person instead of 1st. I couldn’t make the leap from one phase of Wash’s life to the next as a reader. I needed more.

What happened to the red octopus? Its unknown fate made me really sad.


message 10: by Neale (new)

Neale  (collincollinsbookblogcom) | 122 comments Washing Black, while not being my favourite book of the booker longlist, was my favourite read of the list. By this I mean that I felt the most enjoyment while reading it compared to the others. Not sure how it will go in this tournament but I love the book dearly.


message 11: by Carmel (new)

Carmel Hanes | 126 comments Collin wrote: "Washing Black, while not being my favourite book of the booker longlist, was my favourite read of the list. By this I mean that I felt the most enjoyment while reading it compared to the others. No..."

What did you love most about it? I had mixed feelings about it, but did love some aspects. Loved the language and how it evoked a different era with the use of it.


message 12: by jo (last edited Dec 19, 2018 09:16PM) (new)

jo | 429 comments Ruthiella wrote: "I agree with jo that Washington Black is an adventure novel based on 19th century models and nothing like The Underground Railroad in its style and themes. That said, I was blown away by Whitehead’..."

It reminded me a bit of Poe, a bit of Jane Eyre, a bit of Jane Austen too. There are not-quite-resolved bits, like (view spoiler) but I took these to be almost magical realist (yet another genre!), or 19th century, in the sense that the author stays focused all along on the relationships between the characters, and lets other stuff fall by the wayside. I found this rather enchanting, I have to say.


message 13: by Neale (new)

Neale  (collincollinsbookblogcom) | 122 comments Carmel wrote: "Collin wrote: "Washing Black, while not being my favourite book of the booker longlist, was my favourite read of the list. By this I mean that I felt the most enjoyment while reading it compared to..."

I loved the language and the style of writing as well. However I think it was the narrative and the main character that made it so enjoyable for me. I thought the narrative was so well balanced. There were no parts left unresolved or parts that did not seem relevant to the central story. I am going to read it again for the shortlist read.


message 14: by Lola (new)

Lola | 118 comments jo wrote: "SPOILERISH.

actually this seems to me a totally different book from The Underground Railroad. i'm not saying this in the obvious sense that its theme and narrative arc are differe..."


Jo, this sums up how I felt about this book perfectly. Thank you :) For me, this was not a "traditional novel" at all. Not Exit West level different/non-traditional, but for me, WB was very different from other recent reads.


message 15: by Lola (new)

Lola | 118 comments Navi wrote: "Janet wrote: "Sometimes I think books get disparaged because they are a joy to read. It’s like the lit community thinks if you don’t have to work hard to understand, it’s unworthy. Washington Black..."

I've gifted WB twice since I read it. It's just that kind of book to me.


message 16: by jo (new)

jo | 429 comments Lorraine wrote: "Navi wrote: "Janet wrote: "Sometimes I think books get disparaged because they are a joy to read. It’s like the lit community thinks if you don’t have to work hard to understand, it’s unworthy. Was..."

I have physically put it in the hands of two people too!


message 17: by Jennifer (aka EM) (last edited Dec 25, 2018 07:34AM) (new)

Jennifer (aka EM) | 24 comments Ruthiella wrote: "What happened to the red octopus? Its unknown fate made me really sad..."

Hi everyone! Long-time lurker, first-time TOB commenter!

I wanted to jump in on this convo. I loved this book so much - voted it as my zombie - and one of the things that delighted me, among many things, was the symbolism Edugyan employed.

I found it nothing short of profound that Washington and Titch, joined as they were by a scientific mindset (Titch having 'fathered' that in Washington, in some sense), pursued, respectively: the creation of an aquarium, i.e., caging and seeking to keep alive in a cage sentient beings; and the balloon, described repeatedly as a ship with oars, a method of escape and used for escape, but also obviously referencing the transatlantic slave trade (view spoiler).

(view spoiler)

jo wrote: "but also, it does some dramatic shit with whiteness, it seems to me, by framing the white characters, especially titch, as more than just slavers and catchers but as people with intense personal histories...."

Yes. A thousand times yes.


message 18: by jo (new)

jo | 429 comments I remember when you mentioned this to me in person and it blew me away because I had not to seen it at all! We are trapped in our culture's symbols!


message 19: by Nadine (new)

Nadine (nadinekc) | 513 comments jo wrote: "I remember when you mentioned this to me in person and it blew me away because I had not to seen it at all! We are trapped in our culture's symbols!"

Just what I was thinking! Thanks Jo - and Jennifer (aka EM) for the analysis, esp. looking at how empirical science isn't neutral, even (or especially) in its early days. I think I liked the story and characters so much that my brain didn't think beyond them.


Jennifer (aka EM) | 24 comments jo wrote: "I remember when you mentioned this to me in person and it blew me away because I had not to seen it at all! We are trapped in our culture's symbols!"

so true! the broader theme of escape and entrapment (which feeds into blackness/whiteness too maybe) is so fascinating to me here. Titch seeks to escape from Washington but can't - just as no white person, no matter how abolitionist, can escape from having been an enslaving people. Washington can't, although emancipated, ever fully be 'free' - he can't feel free. We don't know the ultimate outcome of the octopus, and he doesn't get what he needs from Titch at the end in terms of resolution or closure. Even his decision to return and claim his rightful credit for the aquarium is tinged with the symbolism of entrapment: he is claiming credit for a device of imprisonment and eventual death (esp. if we see him as the octopus).


message 21: by Jennifer (aka EM) (last edited Dec 25, 2018 07:54AM) (new)

Jennifer (aka EM) | 24 comments Nadine wrote: "empirical science isn't neutral, even (or especially) in its early days...."

good point. So cheeky of Edugyan to take that classic Victorian novel focus/characterization on science/discovery and put a postcolonial spin on it.


message 22: by Carmel (new)

Carmel Hanes | 126 comments Wow....thanks for unlurking, Jennifer. Those are apt and fascinating observations, and I can totally see that. That adds a powerful dimension to the read.


message 23: by jo (new)

jo | 429 comments Brill observations. This is also a commentary I think (now, thanks to you) on the exhbition of captive creatures, including, as we know it happened, Black bodies, at fairs, zoos, and acquariums. An overall take on what it means to appropriate lives, and how the enslavement of people transforms the culture re: ownership of lives even for the people that were enslaved. Cultures interpenetrate, for good or evil, and there is no going back.


message 24: by Neale (new)

Neale  (collincollinsbookblogcom) | 122 comments Jennifer (aka EM) wrote: "jo wrote: "I remember when you mentioned this to me in person and it blew me away because I had not to seen it at all! We are trapped in our culture's symbols!"

so true! the broader theme of escap..."


I really can't wait to read this again after reading your excellent observations. With these revelations, I might just have to bump it up to a five. It was my favourite read of the booker longlist. Thanks Jennifer, you have made an enormously enjoyable read into possibly an even more enjoyable read.


message 25: by Bretnie (new)

Bretnie | 438 comments I loved this book as well and it's one of my top two so far on the shortlist. Like others, I loved the balancing of having an interesting story that was an entertaining read with having some powerful points to make. I enjoyed it a lot more than The Underground Railroad (I was rooting for Homegoing to win that year!).

I love all of the insights you all have made - it really puts into words some of the reasons I enjoyed the book.


message 26: by Neale (new)

Neale  (collincollinsbookblogcom) | 122 comments Yes! I knew there was a reason this was my favourite booker last year. It's such a delightful story and beautifully written. I will definitely change my rating from 4 to 5 stars and with only a couple of books left to read in the shortlist this is my favourite to win. It's funny but on the second read the writing seems more descriptive. It's a pleasure to read. Edugyan is a gifted storyteller.


message 27: by Michael (new)

Michael (grebmar) I thought on a sentence level this was a beautiful book, and from page to page it flowed like a vivid dream. The plot suffers from a lot of Mary Sue plot twists to make Wash be the destined hero, and eventually I thought Edugyan tried to make it the theme of her book, when she has Titch give a speech about 'Choosing what to look at' being an art in itself, or some such.

Wash's obsession with Titch got to be a bit much to hang a novel on in the final third as well, I thought - I was just as interested in the building of the first aquarium as in the Titch final confrontation, which was sort of a letdown.

I feel Tanna was a bit of a letdown as well, caught somewhere between manic pixie dream-girl and empty shell blindly devoted to Wash. Maybe that was the right balance? I'm not sure.

I like your evaluations of this as being about captivity and freedom, but am not sure how Wash's slave status in the beginning relates to the octopus being in a cage at the end, though it does open a big debate between the natures of enslavement, captivity, and exhibition I'd love to see fleshed out.

Overall this was a lovely book but by the ambiguous end I feel a bit cheated, as though Edugyan couldn't figure out what it meant either, so went for a non-ending that doesn't answer anything.


message 28: by Nadine (new)

Nadine (nadinekc) | 513 comments Michael wrote: "I feel Tanna was a bit of a letdown as well, caught somewhere between manic pixie dream-girl and empty shell blindly devoted to Wash. Maybe that was the right balance? I'm not sure..."

Tanna was the main problem for me too. Especially when they came to London, where their relationship lost all contact with the social reality of the time.


message 29: by Lauren (new)

Lauren Oertel | 801 comments Jennifer (aka EM) wrote: "Ruthiella wrote: "What happened to the red octopus? Its unknown fate made me really sad..."

Hi everyone! Long-time lurker, first-time TOB commenter!

I wanted to jump in on this convo. I loved thi..."


Yes, great observations here!


message 30: by Lauren (new)

Lauren Oertel | 801 comments After finishing the book, I found this summary that made me enjoy it even more: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/20...

One of the parts that really stood out to me was the when the author added some interesting complexity to the white savior mentality/reality. Wash's thoughts about Titch and their relationship before he confronted him provided great insight, and their conversation was of course slightly disappointing, but then also realistic.

I hope this one does well in the tournament, and after reading these comments I think I'd also like to read it again.


message 31: by Melanie (new)

Melanie Greene (dakimel) | 236 comments Nadine wrote: "Tanna was the main problem for me too. Especially when they came to London, where their relationship lost all contact with the social reality of the time."

I don't think it lost all contact w social reality. Interracial marriages (as well as co-working relationships, friendships, etc) have been common in England since the 17th c, per Wiki (tied to East India Company's work, not surprisingly). It may have been less common in the aristocracy (which largely stuck to inter-marrying) but it's a big big big stretch to say it goes outside the bonds of social reality.

Also, here are some awesome old photos of interracial couples, but the article kind of cracks me up cause it goes on about how in America there were all the anti-miscegenation laws so you had to be brave to do it, but almost every photo is of a non-American couple.

Which, okay, there don't have so many American couple photos because of the laws, that makes sense, but the article still frames it in an odd way of 'love trumping over law.'

https://metro.co.uk/2018/01/22/photos...


message 32: by Carmel (new)

Carmel Hanes | 126 comments Lauren wrote: "After finishing the book, I found this summary that made me enjoy it even more: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/20...

One ..."


Wonderful review, Lauren.


message 33: by Alison (new)

Alison Hardtmann (ridgewaygirl) | 444 comments I just finished this book and I loved it. That it took the traditional structure of a historical novel and used that to tell a story from the point of view of a man born a slave was wonderful, but Edugyan's writing was so lovely and clear. I'm so pleased at having been pushed into reading this as I think without the Rooster, it would have been relegated to that long, long list of books I plan to get around to someday.

Fascinating commentary here! I'm going to give myself some time to think it over.


message 34: by lark (new)

lark benobi (larkbenobi) | 69 comments When I read this novel I remembered reading I, Juan de Pareja by Elizabeth Borton de Treviño. It's a children's book but full of remarkable specifics about the life of a black man with extraordinary talent trying to navigate his world, in this case to become a painter. It won the Newberry in 1966.


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