Book review: Washington Black is a slave story told with a fresh sense of urgency

The Booker Prize-nominated book by Esi Edugyan, her third novel, is written with truth and authenticity at its heart

BARBADOS - CIRCA 1890:  Working in the sugar cane fields, Barbados  (Photo by Archive Farms/Getty Images)
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When we're first introduced to Esi Edugyan's titular hero, Washington Black, he's an 11-year-old slave on the Faith sugar plantation in Barbados. The "vicious fields of Faith" are all he knows; even the plush interior of the estate's Great House is inconceivable.

Thus, great is his amazement the evening he is summoned to wait at the new master's table. On the death of the old master, the plantation is passed to his nephew, Erasmus Wilde, a sadistic brute of a man, but his younger brother, Christopher, who also arrives at Faith, is a gentler soul. He's obsessed with his designs for his Cloud-cutter, a "wicker-and-wood gondola, its oars stretching like antennae into the sky," borne aloft by a canopy of gas.

A man of science and experimentation, he needs an assistant, and one of a certain weight at that: “Ballast is key,” he explains to Washington the morning after the boy is called to the Great House. Christopher – who tells Washington to call him by his boyhood nickname Titch – plucks our hero from his narrow existence of toil and drudgery, ushering him forth into a “strange second life”. Ostensibly one of previously unimaginable liberty, it also brings with it a different, but no less restrictive, kind of bondage.

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Beginning in 1830, Edugyan’s third novel doesn’t even chart a full decade, but it has the feel of a grand saga. From the tropical, lush heat of Barbados, Washington travels north to the Arctic wastes and a cold one has to experience in order to believe: “It had a colour, a taste – it wrapped itself around one like an unwelcome skin and began, ever so delicately, to squeeze.”

It's here though that Titch abandons him, an act of near unbearable cruelty that shakes Washington to his core. All alone in the world, the 15-year-old makes his way to Nova Scotia in search of the freedom he's been told lies there. All he finds, however, is mud and discontentment; "the free, golden existence once described to me had been used up, crushed, drained to the skin by all who'd come before." Thereafter to London, on to Amsterdam, and then further east to Morocco, Washington is unable to stop searching for Titch.

“My life had been one life before he had taken me up; this he had wrenched off course into a thing of wonder and loneliness and destitution,” he admits in near despair. “My current life, I realised, was constructed around an absence; for all its richness I still felt as if the floors might give way, as if its core were only a covering of leaves, and I would slip through, falling endlessly, never again to get my footing.”

Washington Black is eminently readable. It's a Bildungsroman in the traditional sense, what we might describe as a romping yarn, beautifully and evocatively written, the narrative spinning along at a glorious pace. Saturated with incident and action, despite the sickening descriptions of the barbaric cruelties of plantation life in part one, it owes debts to the likes of Fielding and Dickens, as well as Philip Pullman's Northern Lights and last year's La Belle Sauvage – not that Pullman's books don't deal with terrors and violence of their own, but readers can always take solace in the fact they're roaming the realms of fiction, not one of history's chambers of horrors.

One of the things that’s so clever about this novel is the way Edugyan sets up then dissects the “white saviour” myth. It might make some of us feel better to tell this narrative as a fantasy that salves festering wounds – a young slave’s escape from captivity, by means of a magnificent aerial machine, is aided by a moral, upstanding Englishman who treats his companion like a fellow human being, not an animal in the field – but this would do both Washington and his story an injustice.

Esi Edugyan attends Orange Prize For Fiction at Royal Festival Hall. (Photo by rune hellestad/Corbis via Getty Images)

Instead, Edugyan steadily reveals a dark messy nexus of power, responsibility, trauma and pain. Relative to his brother’s barbarity, Titch is kind. He and the other abolitionists work hard to end the slave trade, but this doesn’t mean their motives are pure – as Washington comes to realise, they’re “more concerned that slavery would be a moral stain upon white men than by the actual damage it wreaks on black men” – nor are they prepared to comprehend the extent of their own complicity in the system.   

Edugyan's genius here, and one of the reasons this book's so deserving of its inclusion on this year's Man Booker Prize longlist, is that she's found a urgent, fresh way of writing the antebellum novel. In the vein of Colson Whitehead's critically acclaimed The Underground Railroad, although not always dealing with fact in the strictest sense of the term, Washington Black's tremendous story resounds with authenticity and truth.