As I was saying, my Shadow Giller reviews will appear in a slightly different format: first, In Short, a 300-word and spoiler-free summary, intended to have a broad appeal, and, next, In Detail, which will expound upon one aspect of the book which I found remarkable (but which might be of interest only to those who have already read the book or those with an interest in the mechanics of writing).
At the heart of Esi Edugyan’s third novel, is George Washington Black, who was born into slavery on Faith Plantation, Barbados. Administered by the Wilde family, when one patriarch dies on the plantation, another takes his place, thereby dictating the future of all plantation inhabitants: a future filled with limitations and cruelties. But the unexpected arrival of another brother, the black-sheep of the family, dramatically alters the trajectory of Wash’s life in 1830.
Christopher ‘Titch’ Wilde is aware of the irony in the complaints he makes in Wash’s hearing, about the restrictions that Titch feels on his life choices and his capacity to pursue his dreams; but, in other ways, he is ignorant of his privilege. And, for his part, Wash is ill-equipped to respond to requests that Titch makes of him, simple questions that presume a certain kind of freedom of thought and imagination, a capacity to contemplate and reflect, which is new to Wash’s experience.
Through the lens of this relationship, Edugyan considers power dynamics and privilege in personal relationships, which extend to broader social and political movements only as a backdrop (through others’ judgements about the connection between Wash and Titch and glimpses of abolitionist efforts and the underground railroad).*
Spanning six years and crossing continents, the novel straddles the universal and the specific, shifting from action scenes to quiet moments. Scientific invention and self-discovery, dedication and dependence, and the classification of the natural world and unnatural hierarchies and social constructions: Esi Edugyan’s storytelling is seemingly effortless.
In granting the narrator of the novel an artist’s eye, Esi Edugyan intensifies the reading experience via Wash’s remarkable capacity to observe. Not only does this create some stunning sensory-soaked moments – click here for an amazing description of Norfolk (if you’re reading via email or through a reader, you will need to click-through to read directly on BIP) – but the narrative is infused with light-and-shadow moments. (And this is not a Shadow Giller inside-joke.)
The way Wash sees, light moves across a colour spectrum which is truly brilliant; it transforms his view – and, hence, readers’ sightlines – of waves and jellyfish, tears on a cheek and the wind across a snowscape. “For I observed now a wide, transparent green orb, pulsing, and beside it a yellow one, and then another and another, dozens of glistening suns flaring all about in the dark waters. […] It had been a burst of incandescence, fleeting, radiant, every punch of light like a note of music.”
Via this talent, Titch and readers alike are reminded that a system which declares that one group of people is inherently more valuable and worthy than another has not calculated the likelihood that individuals in both groups possess tremendous gifts. “He had spent years trying to cultivate an ethos, and despite possessing a clear intelligence, he had lived his whole life in avoidable savagery. How easy it is, to waste a life.”
It is a privileged man who can dispense advice like this: “Well, the main thing is to try not to die. I shall give you some advice on how to best bring that about.” Goff recognizes Wash’s gift and Wash recognizes how unlikely that is: most privileged men cannot see past Wash’s skin colour and visage.
But the most delicate exploration of the relationship is illuminated by the character who graces the book cover, who seems to elect for a caged life and then suffers for the “choice”; this dynamic illuminates the bond between Wash and Titch by subtly reflecting ideas about conditioning and intimacy, freedom and inclination so that readers can catch a glimmer of the truths that simmer beneath this story without feeling blinded by a morality tale.
Esi Edugyan already sports her Giller badge: she won the prize in 2011 for Half-Blood Blues. Other Giller winners have also considered the exploitation inherent in colonialism (e.g. M.G. Vassanji’s The In-Between World of Vikram Lall in 2003 and Austin Clarke’s The Unpolished Hoe in 2002) and human rights (e.g. Will Ferguson’s 419 in 2012 and Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance in 1995). Big and important stories look even bigger and more important with the red Giller Winner sticker on the cover. This jury, however, seems particularly keen to recognize emerging writers and may trust that the other awards’ juries who have recognized Edugyan’s novel to put a pretty sticker on this novel (perhaps the Rogers Writers’ Trust or the Booker Prize, which will be announced tomorrow).
This is one of the twelve books chosen for the longlist for the 2018 Giller Prize, which was announced on September 17, 2018 and selected by the 2018 Giller Prize Jury which includes Kamal Al-Solaylee, Maxine Bailey, John Freeman, Philip Hensher and Heather O’Neill. On October 1st, it was advanced to the shortlist with four other titles, one of which will win the prize on November 19th. This year I am reading with the shadow jury, with Alison and Kim and Naomi, who also have committed to reading this shortlist in its entirety.