Jan/Feb 2020  •   Reviews & Interviews

Washington Black

Review by Ann Skea

Washington Black.
Esi Edugyan.
Profile Books. 2019. 417 pp.
ISBN 978 1 84668 960 4.

My first master named me, as he named all of us. I was christened George Washington Black—Wash, as I came to be known. With great ridicule, he'd said he glimpsed in me the birth of a nation and a warrior-president and a land of sweetness and freedom. All this was before my face was burnt, of course. Before I sailed in a vessel into the night skies, fleeing Barbados, before I knew what it meant to be stalked for the bounty on one's scalp.

George Washington Black, who is the narrator of this story, was an 11-year-old black slave on the Faith Plantation in Barbados when he was chosen by the plantation owner's visiting brother, Christopher, as ballast for his "Cloud-cutter" air-balloon.

Christopher Black (known as Tich) is an abolitionist who abhors his brother's violent treatment of slaves. While visiting Barbados, he plans to continue the air-ship experiments his eccentric father had begun. As he tells his wealthy, arrogant, and dismissive brother:

"I have tried animal bladders and silk stockings. Paper sacks. Even some of the more preposterous ones, to see if some merit was missed from them. But they were all abandoned quite rightfully, Erasmus. I think nothing works so well as hydrogen, and canvas."

So he begs the services of Wash, whose weight appears to be exactly right for his purposes, and Wash helps him to build the strange, gondola-shaped vessel that will hang below the hydrogen balloon. When news reaches the plantation that Erasmus's and Tich's father has died, however, Erasmus decides to hand over the running of the plantation to Tich. This is the last thing Tich wants to do. At the same time, the unexpected suicide of a disturbed cousin who is also visiting the plantation threatens to implicate Wash. So Tich escapes from the island in his Cloud-cutter, taking Wash with him.

Tich's balloon, with its strange gondola hanging below it, is pictured on the cover of the book in an image very like the iconic image associated with Jules Verne's Round the World in Eighty Days. And in many ways Wash's adventures are like those in Verne's famous novel, except that Wash is now advertized as a "murderous" runaway slave and a £100 reward is offered for his capture and return, "Dead or Alive."

Wash's travels, initially with Tich, who treats him well and promises him his freedom when his own travels are done, take him around the world, from Barbados to "stinking" Norfolk, Virginia; then to Hudson Bay and an outlying trading post where they live in an igloo amongst Esquimau people, and where Tich abandons him; then to Nova Scotia; the Maritime Islands; Holland; and ultimately to (limited) success in London. His many adventures and experiences often reflect the difficulties of being a black run-away in a world dominated by white Victorian morality, prejudices, and culture. He struggles to understand what freedom means to him, when there is still a price on his head and widespread prejudice against his color. He also yearns to know why Tich abandoned him and if, after walking out alone into the icy waste, he is still alive. But Wash is a survivor and an optimist.

Wash's innate talent as an artist leads him to employment and to his future wife, Tanna. Later, his employment by an eminent marine biologist leads him to invent tanks to preserve exotic marine specimens, and this, ultimately, involves him with the Zoological Committee in London and participation in a grand exhibition there. But he does not believe Tich is dead, and his urge to find him is obsessive, especially after he hears from the slave-hunter, John Frances Willard, who catches up with him but does not manage to capture him, that Tich is, indeed, alive.

As Wash grows up, there is much in his story that is incredible and that he himself puts down to the "ring of luck around my neck," which he had been told he was born with, although, he notes, "luck is its own kind of manacle." Wash's voice is strong, his story-telling skills superb, and his memory of conversations and events brings to life the many people he has met throughout his life and the strange places and situations in which he has found himself. He remembers Big Kit, the slave woman who first reared and protected him, and the horrors of life on the plantation. He remembers all that happened with Tich and his own friendship with Medwin, in whose rooming house he once lived. Geoff and his daughter Tanna, he writes of with love. All are strongly present in the book, as are his own thoughts and emotions.

Washington Black was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2018. Esi Edugyan, its author, has said it was the voice of its narrator that interested her, and the complicated position he found himself in, racially, socially, intellectually. Out of that grew a story about a boy of sensitivity and intelligence, seeking his foothold in a world where there can be no real belonging for him. In creating Wash and his story, Edugyan has not only written a very enjoyable adventure story, but through him, she has explored some of the complexities of freedom and identity.


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