Esi Edugyan’s latest novel is a thought provoking and intriguing narrative, but not one that I found particularly engaging. The Canadian author’s distant, almost objective matter-of-fact approach created a distance, a cold veneer to the story that left this particular reader strangely unmoved by much of what unfolded over its 400 plus pages.
Barbados, 1830 – and Washington Black is a 10, or possibly 11, year-old slave boy, working the fields of the Faith Plantation. Eighteen weeks after the death of his first master, the cruel Erasmus Wilde, a man ‘…[who] owned me, as he owned all those I lived among, not only our lives but also our deaths, and that pleased him too much’ arrives from England. What follows is a period of terrible cruelty, chilling and unsparing in its randomness and seen from a child’s-eye view. But Washington Black does not dwell on the horrors of colonial slavery: its scope is broader, its ambition wider.
Instead, Erasmus Wilde’s brother, the eccentric Christopher ‘Titch’ Wilde, chooses the young Black to be his personal assistant. Naturalist, scientist, inventor, explorer and abolitionist, Titch wants the boy to help him perfect the perfect aerial machine. But a terrible accident leaves Wash permanently scarred – and as witness to another event, he and Titch flee the island. The two are plunged into adventures on the high seas, the southern American states and the icy wastes of the Arctic and which take in London, Amsterdam and Morocco along the way. And it is Washington Black who rises to the challenge with his imagination and intelligence, even when he is at his lowest ebb. His talent with paper and pencil and the 19thcentury demand for science, illustration and drawn studies attract others to him.
Scientific discoveries, engineering feats, bounty hunters, freezing temperatures, love, destitution, joy, disappointment all follow – elements of a 19thcentury swashbuckling adventure story. But Black is also invested in knowledge, thoughts and interests beyond his background and education – a precociousness that jars but allows the narrative to develop, stylistically enabling Edugyan to increase that searched-for scope of the novel. But it is also this mechanical approach that, for me, placed Washington Black as interesting rather than engaging. It jarred a little too much, putting it beyond the believable and more into a fervid ‘message’. Storyline after storyline is introduced. And whilst Wash is a unique character, restless, bought alive by his connections to people – from Big Kit, his powerful protector at the plantation, Titch himself and, later, Tanna – and the opportunities they provide, there’s something that does not quite gel. And that, sadly, undermined Edugyan’s third novel for me.
Washington Black was shortlisted for the 2018 Booker Prize but lost out to Anna Burns and Milkman.