Washington Black has not even been available for a month but it’s already showing up on all sorts of award lists for the year, including The Man Booker Prize and the Giller Prize. (Edugyan won the Giller Prize for her last novel, Half Blood Blues.) I know Esi slightly in real life, back in my Victoria days. She taught a writing class I took and frequented the bookstore I worked at. She’s lovely in person and a truly talented writer.
I had high expectations as I began Washington Black and it did not disappoint. It is a beautifully written, atmospheric, historical novel. Edugyan takes the reader across the world, introducing us to a litany of strong and often unsavoury characters. Her descriptions of both people and place are lush and vivid and frequently unsettling. Many of the descriptions seem to focus on the captivating ugliness of people; many of the characters bear scars and deformities and these continuously remind us of the brutality within which these characters live.
George Washington Black is a young slave who has lived his entire life on a sugar plantation in Barbados. The novel follows Washington, or Wash, over the next few years of his life. An unexpected relationship is formed between Wash and his master’s brother, Christopher Wilde, also called Titch. Titch is something of an inventor, passionate about balloon travel, and an abolitionist of sorts. When Wash is involved in the death of a white man, he and Titch leave Barbados together.
We follow Wash to North America, from one extreme to another, a young man struggling to make his own way, to learn his place in a brutal world where there seems to be no place or safety for a talented black man. He is marked both by the colour of his skin, the scars he bears as the result of an accident, and the fear that dwells at his very core. Edugyan does a powerful job of expressing how fear dictates so many of Wash’s decisions and steps. He is intelligent and gifted in many ways but his whole life has been one of violence; he is constantly preparing for the next moment of brutality and abandonment.
There is a lot here that is hard to read. Edugyan doesn’t show away from showing the violence and hate so prevalent for that time or what a slave’s life might have been like on a plantation. Even when Wash arrives in parts of the world where he is free, the attitudes toward him are dark and hateful. I appreciated that she was honest in her portrayal of what people around Wash would have been like. Wash comes in contact with several white characters who would be considered progressive for their time. Yet Edugyan never pushes them to be more progressive than would have been realistic; she never tries to soften them for the modern reader. The abolitionists may desire to end slavery but they are still clearly uncomfortable around black people. A white man may admire Wash’s scientific intellect but still views him as some sort of oddity, rather than an equal in learning and value.
There’s a lot in this novel – many locations, many adventures, many characters – but it rarely felt like too much. The central character of Washington Black anchors the novel well. He is likeable and sympathetic and honest in his portrayal and we get to see him grow as his story progresses. I highly recommend this one.