Washington Black… Washington Black… If I were redoing my comprehensive exams in Canadian literature I’d put Washington Black on the list. And not just because it has extensive scenes of Snow and Ice (our titular protagonist finds himself – unprepared and unexpectedly – in the Arctic with his master-turned-friend-turned-masterscantbefriends), but because it is a great read and comprehensive exams in Canadian literature need 99% fewer books about black flies and 99% more of this combination of compelling exploration of Canadian civility coupled with excellent writing.
Right, so what’s it about. We open with our first-person protagonist, Washington, as an eleven-year old slave on a sugar plantation in Barbados. In the opening chapters his life takes a turn when he’s ‘given’ to Tish, the eccentric naturalist brother, of the plantation slave master. What follows is a chronicle of his life from that moment until an uncomfortable resolution/departure from Tish many years later.
The initial encounter with Tish is one of the first moments where luck enters the plot (later scenes of a hot air balloon landing on a ship during thunderstorm or bumping in to the right botanist at the right time) in a way that isn’t frustrating so much as it reinforces that for all of us, the idea of our life owing to ‘hard work’ has much less to do with merit than it does to first-foremost-and-always the inherent privilege of our race, gender and class of birth, and then-with-similar-consequence-and-similar-lack-of-control, the random fortune of being in the right place at the right time with the right people. It’s a powerfully delivered message meant to disrupt any earnest beliefs we might have about genius or personal industry.
Luck is complicated further in that Washington really is some kind of genius artist. And does make decisions for himself that have positive – and negative – consequences. So it’s not like throw-up-your-hands-nothing-matters, more a way of reminding the reader that where historic slavery ends, the continued belief that white people are better than people of colour or indigenous folks continues, and in the subtle ways of thinking that what I have is somehow (exclusively. or mostly) because I earned it, rather than a web of privilege and luck with a peppering of personal effort.
It’s also a book attentive to smell, which is great.
ANYWAY. It won like a million prizes, and so if my endorsement isn’t sufficient, maybe the Booker committee or the NYT will be. And not knowing Esi Edugyan or her work habits, I’d say this book stands in opposition to all I’ve just said – as every page shows hard work and genius.
It’s such a good title, for such a good book. Ready to declare Miriam Toews in my top five fav authors ever (those wondering the rest: Toni Morrison, Margaret Laurence, Dave Eggers (I know, I know), Alice Munro and… Miriam Toews) (list subject to change) (do not hold me to these late hour, several drinks decisions). Continue reading
I read a book in a day! I read a book in a day! Granted I’m on holiday, and there are no distractions and all the coffee, and this was a particularly compelling book. But putting those points aside, it’s still worth celebrating: I read a book in a day! It’s been so long.
ANYWAY. You’d likely read this one in a couple of sittings, too. Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things gets described on the book jacket as ‘cerebral thriller’ and ‘dark twisting suspense’ and ‘horror.’ I’m not sure what a ‘cerebral’ thriller is – I guess there’s very little actual blood in this book? or most of the suspense is achieved by confusing narration and an aggressive present tense. I was feeling edgy while I was reading it. Doesn’t help that, S., on learning it was a ‘thriller’ decided to make whooshing whistling noises and occasional leaps from behind doors. #charming
The book has two ‘modes’ I’d say: one, the hyper-present tense description of a road trip with our unnamed female narrator and her boyfriend Jake, to visit Jake’s parents; two, these stilted strange conversations between the two characters (and then the characters and the parents and some other assorted supporting roles) that stray between the philosophical and the menacing. Most of the questioning centres around whether and how we can navigate the world alone – that is, what is lost/gained by eschewing relationships, or not being able to be in relation-to: what do we need from one another? what are the limits of self-sufficiency? Sometimes these questions are explored head-on in a bizzare-wouldn’t-likely-happen car conversations between the two, and then the questions also get explored in these strange little stories the two tell one another from childhood where extended metaphors are meant to do some kind of instruction on the same theme.
At its best there is a propulsive uncertainty about what will happen to our protagonist. At its worst I didn’t care enough about her – or the snow storm (which read as if someone had said ‘don’t forget setting! and pathetic fallacy!’) or her headaches or the Caller – to be invested in whether everything works out or whether things will be… ended.
Anyway. I’m curious if you’ve read it, what you make of the ending. And if you haven’t, I’m not convinced I’d recommend it. Unless you like ‘cerebral thrillers’ which – if the cover is to be believed – this is of that genre. Not like it was bad, just that there were too many things that irritated me. But still. I read a book in a day!
So if you loved The Time Travellers Wife, you’ll probably enjoy Thea Lim’s An Ocean of Minutes, which is probably the last thing Lim wants me to write, and I’m sorry for saying it. Because they’re very different books. This one is beautifully written, with complex characters and a compelling plot: our protagonists are separated in time when Polly jumps to the future in a gamble to save her lover, Frank, from dying of a pandemic flu. The post-apocalypse future of life after the flu is as disturbing as it is resonant.
But the overarching romance of their relationship, the way the mechanics of time and time travel play in to their relationship, the urgency of their reunion, and the gender politics of a woman waiting – forever waiting – to be reunited with her man – echo strongly with the best-known time travel novel.
That said, whether you’ve read Time Travellers or not, or have no opinions about time travel, I’d recommend this read. It’s not like The Best thing I’ve read, but it’s a solid bet and you could do worse for first books for 2019.
[SPOILER FOLLOWS] Continue reading