Top critical review
Much to be admired with some misgivings
September 4, 2018
This book is long listed for the upcoming Man Booker Award. The author’s previous book Half-Blood Blues won the 2011 Giller Prize. I read it at the time at a book club and quite enjoyed it.
This book didn’t work as well for me. I came to mistrust my judgment on this critically praised and highly rated book. After a strong beginning depicting disturbing mistreatment and brutality at a slave plantation in Barbados, observed and experienced by the young slave Washington Black, he is removed from the backbreaking work of cutting cane in the fields and taken on as personal assistant to the slave owner’s kinder brother, Titch.
Titch is an interesting character and I wanted to know more about his goals and feelings. I thought he remained an ambiguous person throughout the book. He is a naturalist, scientist, inventor and abolitionist and encourages Washington in Art and mathematical and mechanical measurement. Titch is obsessed in building a lighter than air flying machine.
After the death of a the overseer’s and Titch’s cousin in Washington ‘s presence the story changes to a Jules Vern type misadventure by early airship. Titch flees the plantation with young Washington who fears he will be unjustly blamed and killed for the man’s death. Through a series of events they end up by boat in the Arctic. Up to this point the story worked well for me.
The series of events and locations started to fall flat. The story is told entirely in the first person from Washington’s viewpoint but I felt it lacked coherence. The parts just didn’t blend together for me. The time in the Arctic should have provided the background for an exciting adventure, but it was not happening. The dialogue was often stiff and nebulous and often remained that way.
Next Washington ends up for a brief time in the States and finally in Nova Scotia without Titch. The hardship and betrayal of promises to the Black Loyalists who came to Nova Scotia is barely touched upon. While practicing his art work by the sea he meets a young woman and they begin to fall in love. Her father is a renowned British naturalist who is preparing a manuscript on ocean life which he intends to present to the Royal Geographic Society. Washington is asked to illustrate the scientific book. He fears that he and other slaves have been denied the chance to reach their full potential and consents to accompany the naturalist and his daughter to England. Washington’s creative mind is envisioning a way that living sea creatures can be displayed in large aquariums in an Ocean Centre when he is not working on the illustrations.
His often thinks sadly about Titch and wonders if there was any affection or if he was just being used and abandoned.
His brilliant illustrations are done and his invention of a large indoor aquarium has been accomplished. He feels that as a former slave and through racial prejudice his accomplishments will be attributed to others.
Washington next travels to Amsterdam with the naturalist’s daughter. The mission is to obtain a rare biological specimen but upmost in his mind is to find Titch who he believes is in Holland. The specimen is received gratefully by his girlfriend’s naturalist father. Next the couple journey to Morocco still in search of Titch.
The ending was inconclusive. The cover illustration on my book was of an octopus which inspired Washington to think of displaying living creatures and led to the Ocean Center. I wanted to know if the sick creature survived. I also felt I had no better understanding of Titch and his motives after their final encounter. We don’t know the outcome for Washington and his girlfriend in a world unready to accept mixed race couples. I wanted to know if any of his scientific and art work received any recognition.
There is much to admire in this book and potential readers should not be dissuaded by my misgivings.