Washington Black
  • March 11, 2019

    Opening Round

  • Esi Edugyan

    1Washington Black
    4The Dictionary of Animal Languages

    Heidi Sopinka

  • Judged by

    Nichole Perkins

The Dictionary of Animal Languages

When I first received Washington Black by Esi Edugyan and The Dictionary of Animal Languages by Heidi Sopinka, I immediately thumbed through the pages and let the books fall open at will. What passages did the books want me to see first? Maybe this is a strange habit. I’m not sure. I’ve never asked anyone else how they let books speak to them, but I can also admit I’m one of those people who reads the last few lines of a book first. It doesn’t spoil anything for me; in fact, it usually ripens the anticipation of settling into a good book. Sometimes knowing a piece of the ending is what can guarantee I finish a challenging book.

Nichole Perkins is a writer who focuses on the intersections of pop culture, race, sex, gender, and relationships. She co-hosts Thirst Aid Kit, a BuzzFeed podcast about pop culture, desire, and the female gaze. Her first collection of poetry, Lilith, but Dark, was published by Publishing Genius in 2018. Nichole loves Prince, romance novels, the television show Frasier (specifically Niles Crane), and remains in search of the perfect juicy lipgloss. A native of Nashville, Tenn., Nichole currently lives in Brooklyn. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “None.”

I needed that guarantee for both of these books.

Washington Black opens in 1830 on a plantation in Barbados and ends six years later. Wash, our eponymous narrator, born George Washington Black, is an 11-year-old slave whose malicious master has died. Wash fears his old master’s brother, Christopher “Titch” Wilde, but he is a man of science and nature, a naturalist, inventor, and abolitionist. Quite frankly, Titch sees Wash as a project, teaching him how to read and write, and Wash becomes his assistant of sorts. A tragedy sends the two on an adventure across the world: the arctic, England, Morocco. Their journey helps Wash figure out not only what freedom is, but also what it means to reinvent one’s self. Who are the saviors in our lives? Is it the people who provide the means of escape (the money, the education) or is it the self who makes the choices to accept those ways out?

This novel has four sections and the first reads like a slave narrative, telling the gruesome horrors of a Caribbean plantation. It felt familiar yet raw, reminding me of my early college days of reading such harrowing, eloquent narratives—eyes wide, mouth agape, in awe of the incredible prose even as I hurt from the descriptions, knowing my present-day imagination pales to the truth. And then halfway through the book, I found myself holding on to the ending I read prematurely. Wash remembered something Big Kit, his mother figure on the plantation had told him: “… that free men had total dominion over their choices; that they controlled every aspect of their lives.” I had chosen to peek at Wash’s future. Would I choose to keep reading his story, even if confused by his own choices, such as passing up a clear chance to freedom?

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It is a dilemma I found myself in as I read The Dictionary of Animal Languages as well. Ivory Frame, a reclusive artist in her nineties, receives news that she has a grandchild, despite never having had a child. Her assistant Skeet, with his own troubled past, is her only connection to humanity as she seeks to record the languages of animals, hoping to preserve their communication in case of future extinction. In nonlinear storytelling, Ivory’s history of life before and after World War II (an artist’s life through love and love’s loss in tumultuous times) becomes as clear as it can be when you’re in the platinum years of your life and trying to share a story that tells all without revealing too much.

On a technical level, the lack of quotation marks and frequent sentence fragments overwhelmed my reading experience at first. I thought it pretentious. The prose was so poetic, it practically gleamed purple from the page. I found myself rolling my eyes and wondering if I could deal with a writer so in love with Writing, capital W: “On this bench, Lev and I once came to each other as in a dream. He walks toward me and I marvel at the precision of his body and how his limbs seem to be catching the entire wheel of the moon.” So lovely yet drenched in writer’s sweat.

And yet, I wanted to read more, to push through and give myself the honesty of the reading experience, despite having cheated to see the ending. I started to love not knowing when conversations ended and when internal ruminations began. I realized that this novel was, in its own way, a way for the author to keep track of her own history of language.

Dictionary forced me to slow my reading down and challenged me more than I anticipated and I liked that. I think the love story in the center of so much aching prose anchored me. Everything is an act of love in Dictionary, even the absence of it. For the first time in a long time, I wished I had not taken a single glance at the end and let the journey surprise me wholly.

In the end, I chose Dictionary over Washington Black because I found the premise and structure more challenging and engaging. Dictionary made me push past my own expectations of literature, and I appreciated that.

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Match Commentary

By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

John Warner: I am fascinated with Judge Perkins giving The Dictionary of Animal Languages the nod for being “more challenging and engaging.” I’m fascinated because of how those two elements can forge into a specific kind of pleasure. I think I know this pleasure, though I’ve only just started The Dictionary of Animal Languages. (I will finish it prior to the quarterfinals.)

Kevin Guilfoile: Last match I talked about the ways I connected with Milkman for many of the same reasons Judge Perkins found a match for herself in Dictionary. However, Dictionary didn’t quite engage me the way Milkman did. I enjoyed it, but Washington Black was one of my favorite reads of the year.

I love the way Washington Black plays with both history and literature. As a novel, it’s kind of an inverted Huckleberry Finn. It’s often fanciful, but it can also be brutal. It shows the proper respect to the seriousness of the subject matter, but it’s also great fun to read. It’s the kind of book I love and it’s executed beautifully.

Wash narrates the book, but he does it as an adult, looking back on this childhood adventure. That distance, for me, was one of the keys to the novel’s pleasures. I’ve often said (and probably in this space) that every time I pick up a novel I am trying to recapture the feeling I had when I first fell in love with reading. It’s a futile task, because I can’t see the world as a child, but that is the high I am always chasing. Wash’s narration has some of that wistfulness. Titch even says it explicitly once: “Children know everything about beauty. It is adults who have forgotten.”

John: Washington Black is an honest-to-goodness serial adventure novel, and I am here for every page of it. There are brutal parts as befits the story of a boy born in captivity, but the novel is indeed a very fun read, with each chapter a new adventure in the life of our protagonist.

The notion of it being an “inverted Huckleberry Finn” is an interesting one because one of the chief pleasures for the novel is how it gives Wash as much agency as possible within whatever circumstances he faces at the time. In lesser hands, this could be reduced to a “plucky underdog” narrative, but at every turn, the novel makes clear the danger of Wash exercising that agency as well as the cost of his choices.

He does things which seem foolhardy and unsafe, governed by heart more than head, and there are times where I judged him as being a fool, but this is part of the deeper resonances of the novel. Wash is given sufficient agency to act foolish. It seems reductive to call him “brave.” He is that, but he is not acting out of a sense of “bravery” per se. Sometimes it is duty, sometimes it is because he feels he has no other choice.

In terms of giving up its pleasures more readily, Washington Black is the less challenging novel for sure, and as I make my way into The Dictionary of Animal Languages, my duty to the Tournament is keeping me invested in turning the pages. This doesn’t make one book better than the other, but they are disparate experiences.

Still, Washington Black is a book that continues to give up some pleasures as I consider it further.

Kevin: The care and skill with which The Dictionary of Animal Languages is composed is obvious. As I read, I made frequent notes of phrases and observations that delighted me, or that I wanted to save for further contemplation. At one point, Ivory says to a friend, “Like all charismatic women, you are beautiful by conviction.” I know people exactly like this, and that sentence is a wonderful example of the close-up magic of fiction (and poetry, too) when you encounter something expressed in words for the first time that you have felt in your heart and known to be true.

The novel as a piece didn’t click with me the way Washington Black did, but the journey contained a great many small thrills like that one.


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