Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Fantastic Odyssey

Washington Black 

Washington Black

"What did I feel? What would anyone feel in such a place? My chest ached with anguish and wonder, an astonishment that went on and on, and I could not catch my breath. The Cloud-cutter spun, turned gradually faster, rising ever higher. . . The air grew colder, crept in webs across my skin. All was shadow, red light, storm-fire and frenzy. And up we went into the eye of it, untouched, miraculous." (p 105)

The story of George Washington Black is one of the odyssey of a young boy through his growth to manhood. In this case the young boy is a slave on a plantation in Barbados. Born on that plantation and raised by his mother Big Kit, young Wash, as he is called, is presented with a unique opportunity when Christopher Wilde, the brother of the Master of the Plantation, chooses Wash to be his assistant in his ventures exploring the natural world. Soon Wash enters into a world where the possibility of his escape from a life in chains changes from fantasy into reality. The reality he experiences includes many adventures that seem to be closer to the realm of the fantastic than that of the everyday.

The novel opens in 1830 where the English family named Wilde owns Faith plantation in Barbados. Wash narrates the story and is a slave who was born on the plantation in the year 1818. The master of the plantation is Erasmus Wilde, who is cruel and sadistic towards the slaves. Kit, "Big Kit" to Wash, is a female slave who takes care of Wash—says that she and Wash will be reincarnated in Africa after they die. One day, Erasmus’ younger brother, Christopher “Titch” Wilde—arrives on the island. He is a scientist and inventor, and he hopes to test his new hot air balloon design on a nearby mountain. Titch is an abolitionist and finds the methods of his cruel brother abhorrent.

Titch enlists Wash as an assistant, and he teaches Wash to read, write, and draw. Wash is fascinated by drawing finds he has a special ability to sketch images of the natural world. Titch continues working on his hot air balloon, but, due to an accidental gas explosion from the balloon, Wash suffers burns on much of his face and body that will stay with him for life. Titch and Erasmus’ cousin Philip comes to visit, unfortunately Philip suffers from depression and soon kills himself. Titch believes that Erasmus will likely accuse Wash of killing Philip and will kill Wash as a means of spiting Titch. So Titch and Wash escape using the hot air balloon and then gain passage by boat to Norfolk, Virginia. There, a kind sexton gives them temporary shelter. In the meantime Erasmus hires a bounty hunter to retrieve Wash. Titch next takes Wash with him north to Canada, where they meet with James Wilde, Titch’s father, who is on a scientific expedition. After James refuses to help secure Wash’s safety from Erasmus, Titch devolves into a frenzy of despair and wanders off into the wilderness.

With Titch gone, Wash travels to Nova Scotia to hopefully live and work in peace. He is about 16 years old by that time. The British Empire abolishes slavery, but he still witnesses and experiences instances of racial tension and persecution. Wash befriends a young woman named Tanna Goff, who is from England. Her father is the renowned marine zoologist Geoffrey Goff, who is in Canada collecting specimens for an exhibition in London. Goff hires Wash as an assistant and illustrator, allowing Wash to further develop his talents. Unfortunately, the bounty hunter catches up with Wash; however he escapes only after learning that Titch is alive and in England. A romance begins to develop between Tanna and Wash. Wash conceives of having an exhibition of live sea creatures in London. Wash and the Goffs return to London to execute this plan.

In the concluding section of the novel we find Wash with the Goffs in London. However Wash still desires to try to find Titch. His further adventures take him to Amsterdam and Morocco as the novel ends. 
I found the novel endlessly fascinating with both the story of Wash's growth into a successful young man and Titch's search for meaning in his life compelling narratives. The plot at times bordered on the fantastic, but the strength of the characters overcame any weakness in the story-line. This novel from the pen Esi Edugyan is worthy of consideration by all who enjoy historical adventures.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2018.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

A Woman at the Top

Top Girls 

Top Girls

"MARLENE: We’ve all come a long way. To our courage and the way we changed our lives and our extraordinary achievements. (They laugh and drink a toast.)"  -  Caryl Churchill, Top Girls

Churchill's play is a mix of drama and comedy, with elements of fantasy and Freud thrown in for good effect. I enjoyed seeing a performance of the play more than I enjoyed reading it. This was primarily because the acting and the direction of the play brought out its best moments.

Top Girls is the story of one woman’s rise to success and of the other women in her life (as well as those in history) whose experiences call hers into question. Its all-female cast speaks from a wide variety of cultural and political positions in dialogue that is orchestrated on the page almost like musical lines and themes, with numerous interruptions, dual conversations, and simultaneous speeches which undercut or highlight one another. The resulting development of the play shows success for the assertive Marlene who has reached the top of the hierarchy at an employment agency, along with the price that she had to pay to achieve that success. The darker side of the play portrays her sister and niece who are living a more proletarian lifestyle.

The mixture of the two with the addition of a lengthy fantastic dinner scene to open the play provides more questions than answers about what the message of the drama is. Since it was first produced in 1982, the play may be a little dated, but much of the drama seems timely enough. It is the somewhat confusing delivery of that drama over the space of two acts and five scenes that left this reader slightly less than satisfied.

Top Girls by Caryl Churchill.  Samuel French, 1982.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Migrants Through Time

Exit West: A Novel 

Exit West

“Every time a couple moves they begin, if their attention is still drawn to one another, to see each other differently, for personalities are not a single immutable color, like white or blue, but rather illuminated screens, and the shades we reflect depend much on what is around us.”  ― Mohsin Hamid, Exit West

This is a dream-like book that blends realism and fantasy in a magical way that makes it all seem possible. Early in the book the narrator observes that "one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying." (p 4) 
The narrator tells of a young couple who manage to meet and kindle a love that transports them through life and time to a place where they can live as each chooses in spite of the vicissitudes of the world around them.
In an unnamed city on the brink of civil war, Saeed and Nadia meet while taking an adult education course. The following day, Saeed can’t stop thinking about her while he whiles away his time at a local advertising firm.

Before continuing the story of Saeed and Nadia the narrative cuts to a vignette of a white woman sleeping in her bedroom in Australia. As she dozes, a dark-skinned man slowly emerges from the darkness of her closet, a darkness that is blacker and more absolute than the rest of the lightless room. After he emerges from this mysterious door, the man walks quietly through the bedroom before slipping out the open window. This seemingly unrelated incident will prove a portent of events later in the lives of Saeed and Nadia.

The narrative shifts back to Saeed and Nadia and as it continues, shifts back and forth between them. Saeed lives at home with his parents in a small apartment that used to be quite elegant but is now somewhat tired, a “crowded and commercial” neighborhood having grown up around it. Nadia grew up in a deeply religious household, but she never felt drawn to this kind of faith. When she decided to move out on her own even though she wasn’t married, her parents and sister were incensed, and because she was unwilling to compromise, their relationship was destroyed.
As Saeed and Nadia’s begin a modern sort of courtship, the city plunges inexorably into turmoil, as militant radicals overtake the neighborhoods, killing bystanders and government officials in order to establish dominance. Nonetheless, Saeed and Nadia manage to live somewhat normal lives. One night, they sit on Nadia’s balcony and eat magic mushrooms before drawing close and becoming physically intimate for the first time. This intimacy continues in subsequent meetings, but Saeed stops Nadia each time before they have sex, telling her—to her disappointment—that he wants to wait until marriage.

Before long, the government shuts off all cellphone service in an attempt to make it harder for the militant radicals to control the city. As a result, Nadia and Saeed are cut off from one another, unable to communicate until Saeed finally shows up at Nadia’s house. Not long thereafter, Saeed’s mother is hit by a stray bullet that kills her. When Nadia sees how distraught Saeed and his father are after the funeral, she decides to move in with them. Tensions escalate quickly in the city, and Saeed, Nadia, and Saeed’s father find themselves unable to lead the lives they once enjoyed.
Also, about this time, rumors start circulating about black doors that can transport people from one place to another, taking them far away. Apparently, these doors simply appear in the place of regular doors, and many of the city’s inhabitants actively seek them out as a way of escaping the violent radicals. In spite of the danger of using these doors to leave Nadia and Saeed eventually do so. Their experiences in Greece, London, and northern California comprise the remainder of the story.

Each of the episodes are presented very realistically with their lives buffeted by competing claims of both the need to maintain a daily life and the emotions of their personal relationship. Their story is told in a way that gradually builds the reader's interest up to the last page of the novel. I found myself agreeing with the narrator that "We are all migrants through time." (p 209) The fantastic element allowed one to meditate on the migration of people throughout the world and what it means to leave your family behind and join a new community of people - both natives and others.

Exit West: A Novel by Mohsin Hamid. Riverhead Books, New York, 2017.