I got this book a few months ago in a Books that Matter subscription box. I had seen it around, but it hadn’t necessarily been towards the top of my list. And honestly, I’m glad I didn’t jump on it and buy it here, because the UK version of the cover is freaking GORGEOUS. Though that’s besides the point. Anyways, I am not really sure what made me pick it up now. But here we are.
“How easy it is, to waste a life.”
George Washington Black, or Wash, is born on a slave on a plantation in Barbados. After a violent first decade or so of life, the plantation owner dies and when the new one arrives (even more brutal than the last) his younger brother, Christopher Wilde, or “Titch,” arrives with him. Titch is an amateur naturalist/inventor and before long has brought Wash under his tutelage as a sort of apprentice. When an accident causes Titch and Wash to flee Barbados, an adventure starts that will take Wash farther than he ever dreamed. First, to the Americas and then to find Titch’s father in the Arctic. Then, when Titch disappears there, on to a free colony in Nova Scotia, to London as the guest of a marine zoologist and his daughter, and, in a journey to relocate Titch, to Amsterdam and, finally, Morocco.
Honestly, I don’t know what I expected of this book, or what it was about, but what I got was absolutely not what I had anticipated. And I feel like I may have been a bit dense, to be honest, because the cover has a hot air balloon ship thing on it (at least, the UK softcover that I own has that), which should have been a major clue. Regardless, this book was a much greater adventure than I was ready for. To give you a feel for the style of this book, it was a bit of a mix of The Philosopher’s Flight (Tom Miller) and The Essex Serpent (Sarah Perry), with a little be of She Would Be King (Wayetu Moore) mixed in. It’s a strange and unique novel, mixing historical fiction, natural sciences, a little bit of the magical, and a large dose of social conscious in a way that I have definitely not experienced before. I love finding distinctive books like this. It’s so amazing to me what authors can do, how original and creative they can be, despite the number of books that have already been written. It’s really something else. Anyways, the narrator, Wash himself, was on point – emotional and insightful within the bounds of his ability, yet limited by his experiences and treatment. It’s a fascinating voice to speak from and really made the wonder of the story come alive. I also liked the inclusion of information about “old school” aeronautics, marine zoology, photography, drawing, travel and abolitionist movements – it was a wide array of topics, ones that I have limited knowledge in myself, and they all kept my interest.
However, since there was so much going on, topically, at any given time, I did find a lot of it to be very surface-level, and perhaps the story itself suffered a little bit for that. We moved from location to location, acquaintance to acquaintance, area of interest/study to area of interest/study at a fairly speedy rate. That is not to say that there weren’t focal points – locations and people and studies that took more center stage when it was their time, and which developed throughout the novel to gain real depth, but there just seemed to me to be a little too much in addition to those major points. I was fascinated by, but never felt truly connected with, the story. Perhaps that was the point…the entire novel felt a lot like a fable to me, in the way that it seemed to be unreal, but also carrying important messages. Yet I could never put my finger on exactly what the author wanted us to take away, or if she just wanted to entertain us. That lack of surety left me feeling vaguely unsatisfied when the book was over. There were, also, a number of coincidences and unbelievable crossings of paths, etc. that I found really strained credulity, which, as a style, just didn’t fit, for me, with the way the story was told/unfolded.
This novel was nominated for, and I believe won, a number of awards. In fact, it was even a nominee for the Man Booker Prize in 2018. So there was a lot of hype for it – both from literary representatives and, in fact, through a number of popular bookstagram accounts. And I do see where the hype comes from. As I said, this is such an original piece, covering many interesting topics in an incredibly creative way, with adept (if not spectacular or unusual) writing. But, at least for me, it fell a bit short of the hype. I am not sure I see what exact qualities made it so popular and well-received. That is to say, I didn’t note anything transcendent about it that would lead to quite the amount of praise and elite popularity it got. However, I enjoyed reading it and was thoroughly entertained. And if you are looking for an adventure, this book will absolutely give it to you.