“An Incontestable Beauty”: A Review of Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black

Washington Black—the third novel by Esi Edugyan and her second to win the Giller Prize—depicts the life of Washington (Wash) Black, who rises above the conditions of his time to shape a life based on his imagination, intelligence, and artistic talent. Wash seeks freedom and dignity in a society that would deny him the right to be fully human. The novel opens when Wash is eleven years old (it is narrated from his perspective as an eighteen-year-old) on Faith Plantation in Barbados in 1830. The contrast between a young and curious Washington and the injustice of his brutal surroundings is provided through the recollections of his older self: “What I felt at that moment, though I then lacked the language for it, was the raw, violent injustice of it all.” Edugyan does not shy away from the “unspeakable acts” of slavery and the way that slavery continues to affect Wash even when it is abolished throughout the British Empire in 1833. Edugyan’s writing—from her careful plotting to her complex characters—speaks a veritable truth about what it means to be truly free.

You can read my full review over at Canadian Literature, here.

A Review of Shane Rhodes’s Dead White Men

Shane Rhodes’s stunning sixth collection of poetry, Dead White Men, repurposes settler texts with pioneering deftness (words cascade, fonts change, statues silhouette, language obliterates), using poetry to critically interrogate the Eurocentrism found in many foundational settler texts. While the names of many dead white men have faded in the annals of history, their mythopoeic justifications for colonization remain woven into the fabric of Euro-American society. Stories shape our beliefs and ethics, and so there’s good reason to go back to colonial origin stories, especially given the cultural amnesia around them. As Rhodes explains in the Notes section, “I was interested in looking to these past stories (especially those focused on North America and the South Pacific), not to add to the fictions of past white heroism but to better understand the problematic relationship between the stories, the mythologies they have become, and the lands and peoples they describe.”

You can read my full review over at The Malahat Review, here.

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“holding each other up”: A Review of Katherena Vermette’s The Break

Katherena Vermette’s The Break is a devastatingly beautiful novel that depicts the bonds between the women of an extended Indigenous family. With warp and weft, Vermette weaves together the voices of numerous intergenerational women to tell their personal stories as they deal with the enduring after-effects of trauma. The prose is sparse, yet dense (“Stella blinks a tear”), as the narrative takes a bare-knuckles approach to cut a jagged truth. Like her stunning poetic debut, North End Love Songs (2012), The Break deftly crafts Vermette’s complex relationship to Winnipeg’s North End. A surface reading concerns the mystery surrounding the sexual assault of a thirteen-year-old Métis girl vis-à-vis the police procedural that unfolds as a result of the crime: “Aboriginal female. Blood loss. Signs of sexual assault.” But the novel is far more complex than this, using numerous viewpoints to reveal the complicated sociopolitical conditions that produce violence and racism, and that cause harm to people, especially women, in Indigenous communities.

Click here to read my full review at Canadian Literature.