Adventure, Edugyan, Esi

Review of Washington Black

Image result for washington black esi edugyanWashington Black by Esi Edugyan follows the title character from the plantations of Barbados to the Arctic circle and finally to the Moroccan desert. At the start of the novel, the 11-year-old Washington Black witnesses untold horrors at the hands of his tyrannical slave-owner Erasmus Wilde. His only real friend is Big Kit, an elderly enslaved woman who protects Washington from abuse and offers the boy guidance.

One day, Erasmus’s brother Christopher (“Titch”) Wilder asks Washington to help him build a cloud-cutter. Titch chooses Washington because the boy is a talented artist, with an eye for detail. Yet, the building of this airship is no smooth sailing. Washington suffers severe facial burns in a work accident, prompting Erasmus to take the boy back from his brother. Titch almost destroyed his “property”. But before Washington can be returned to his slave-owner, Erasmus’s cousin Philip takes his own life. Because Washington witnessed the event, he knows that he will be blamed for the man’s death. That night, Titch – realizing that the boy is in danger – helps Washington escape Barbados. The two take to the sky in their newly built cloud-cutter.

Yet, Washington’s escape is not his ticket to freedom. He lives in the shadow of  several inventors, who, though critical of slavery, nevertheless use Washington for their personal gain.

If you have been following my blog for any length of time you know that I absolutely love travel stories. Washington Black is not only entertaining but also highly original in its perspective. Travel adventures are traditionally told from the perspective of the lead-explorer (almost always a white man). The servant (or slave, as the case might be) is taken for granted. They might be the butt of some jokes, but they are otherwise face-less characters. Esi Edugyan turns the narrative on its head by centering the anonymous slaves who made technological advancement possible. Washington’s story is punctuated by extreme suffering and neglect. The plantation scenes are some of the most brutal I have encountered in fiction. Yet, Washington is not entirely a victim of his circumstances. Edugyan gives her protagonist agency and a voice. He is neither a victim to pity nor a hero to admire.

This work is a fantastic contribution to the travel fiction genre. It deserves all of the literary prizes it has received and been nominated for. I will definitely be reading Edugyan’s earlier two novels.

Favorite Quote

“But human faces are so interesting,” said I. “Yes, to be sure. But when you are looking at one face, you are not looking at another. You are privileging that face. You are deciding who is worthy of observation and who is not. You are choosing who is worth preserving.”

Adventure, Goldman, William

Review of The Princess Bride

Image result for the princess bride bookThe film adaptation of William Goldman’s The Princess Bride is a cult classic. But not many fans of the movie have read the book. Although this review will be spoiler-free, my intended audience is people familiar with the movie.

_____

I am always the last person to see a film. Less than a year ago, one of my best friends encouraged me to give The Princess Bride a try. Despite my dislike for fictional romance, I finally gave in and rented the movie from Amazon. I am the most movie-ignorant person I know.

To be honest, I wasn’t very impressed by the film. I enjoyed the outlandish characters and the parody on courtly romance, but nothing stood out to me as particularly noteworthy. Whenever I am disappointed by a hyped work, I convince myself that I’m missing something: Fans are seeing something that I’m just not seeing. But before re-watching the film, I thought to read William Goldman’s book. I have been inspired in the past to re-watch a movie because of the book (ex. The Lord of the Rings movies).

The first thing that struck me about the book was the frame narrative. The preface establishes the story as an abridgment of a larger European satire of the same name. A fictional William Goldman recounts his childhood love for S. Morgenstern’s book. His father read it to him for the first time while he was recovering from Pneumonia. But William was concerned that his son Billy would find the many asides and descriptions boring. William, himself, had always felt that those sections of Morgenstern’s book were unnecessary to the plot. Hence, the frame narrator’s decision to produce an abridgment of The Princess Bride. Multiple times in the story, our fictional William Goldman intervenes to tell the reader how he has edited the original work and the reasons for his edits. The frame narrative is much more prominent in the book than in the movie. I prefer the book’s metatextual elements for the questions they raise about the purpose of storytelling.

I was also surprised by William Goldman’s fictional persona. He is not a very likable character. William is the quintessential racist,misogynistic white male author. He is self-absorbed, dislikes his wife, and is absent from his son’s life. At first, the casual racism and misogyny were quite off-putting, but I am now convinced that the real William Goldman very consciously included those elements in order to parody aspects of the literary industry. The real author does not have a son, and his wife is not a psychiatrist.

The Princess Bride is the perfect book to read when sick. It is fast-paced and laugh-out-loud funny. Westley’s bad-ass persona is even more apparent in the book than the movie. He leaves Buttercup as a lowly farm boy, but develops some insane fighting skills in no time. Vizzini, Fezzik, and Inigo have the most interesting backstories. I recall not being able to keep the characters straight in the movie. Thankfully, they are more distinct in the book. Not once did I feel that the narrator’s interjections or character backstories undermined the general action of the story.

And yes, Inigo does give his famous line – about a dozen times.

There’s something quite Rabelaisian about the novel. I was surprised and entertained by the outrageous violence and occasional vulgarity in the novel. The narrator presents The Princess Bride as a story for children, but it is clearly written for adults. I’ve never laughed so hard while reading about torture!

I will certainly be rewatching the film adaptation in the near future. I will be paying close attention to how the film follows or modifies the book because William Goldman also wrote the screenplay for the movie. The next time I’m sick or unable to sleep, I will pick up A Princess Bride. It’s the perfect escapist read.