Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Washington Black – the third novel by award-winning Canadian writer Esi Edugyan – is a bildungsroman; that is, a novel which focusses on the moral and psychological growth of a young protagonist from child to adult.  Washington Black, the eponymous protagonist, or ‘Wash’ as he is known to his acquaintances, is at the beginning of the novel an eleven-year-old slave on Faith Plantation in Barbados.

The owner of the sugar plantation is the cruel and harsh Erasmus Wilde.  Wilde refers to the slaves as ‘filth’ and to Wash in particular as ‘the nigger’s calf’.  Cruelty and a complete denial of their humanness is the lot of the slaves and all they can hope for is that, when death comes, they will return to their homeland in the afterlife.  Without sensationalist writing, the author brilliantly conveys this overwhelming despair in a few succinct sentences.

Faith itself darkened under our new master.  In the second week, he dismissed the old overseers.  In their place arrived rough men from the docks, tattooed, red-faced, grimacing at the heat.  These were ex-soldiers, or just island poor, with their papers crushed into a pocket and the sunken eyes of devils.  Then the maimings began. [8]

Wash, however, is offered an opportunity to leave the fields when Wilde’s younger brother ‘Titch’ sees Wash and considers that he is exactly the correct height and weight to provide ballast in a ‘cloud-cutter’ [or hot-air balloon].  Reluctantly, Wilde agrees to handing over a slave to Titch and Wash takes the first step on a journey which will change his life forever.  Initially, he is simply required to be the labourer carrying pieces of the cloud-cutter to the top of a suitable hill for re-assembling before its launch.  Before too long though, Titch begins to see an intelligence and wit in Wash which he had previously masked for fear of being seen as presumptuous.  With Titch’s encouragement, Wash learns to take scientific measurements and, at the same time, demonstrates a surprising talent for fine drawing.

Gradually, a close friendship grows between Titch and Wash based on a mutual respect for each other’s skills and talents.  Wash begins to see Titch as family and, as he grows more comfortable in this strange arrangement, he develops in confidence and ability.  He also begins to believe he has an opportunity to live as a free person, and thus is planted a longing for a different life which ultimately leads to heartache and disappointment.

Two significant events occur and both have a major impact on Wash.  The first results in Wash being seriously burnt on one side of his face – he is left with horrific scars.  The second necessitates Titch and Wash leaving the plantation in the middle of the night and travelling secretly to the United States.

Wash’s thoughts as he and Titch make their way to the States eloquently express his new-found confidence in himself and even more importantly in the value of his life.  He says … and I knew, too, how strange it felt to be alive, and whole, and astonishingly worth saving. [149]

Although the slave trade had ended some years before [in the novel, the year is now 1832], there remain the residual prejudice and cruelty towards those who are black.  Wash eloquently and despairingly says as he discovers that he cannot be safe in the United States –

I had imagined my existence a true and rightful part of the natural order.  How wrong-headed it all had been.  I was a black boy, only – I had no future before me … I was nothing.  I would die nothing, hunted hastily down and slaughtered. [165]

Wash and Titch leave for Canada and then the Arctic Circle where Titch hopes to find his once-believed-to-be-dead father.

It is at this point that the story falters a little.  Credulity is strained as they manage to penetrate deep into the Arctic and survive.  Titch abandons Wash there for reasons which sound false to the reader and later – after he discovers what they are – to Wash as well.  Wash makes his way to England and the story is back on track.

In England though, the learning gained by Wash through his relationship with Titch goes for nothing in London.  He is reduced to working as dishwasher or a laundry boy.  Aged only 15, Wash on catching sight of himself in a mirror, says to himself I saw in my eyes a lightlessness, a methodical will for violence.  I knew I must move on, or kill, or be killed. [230]

Wash does move on and his life improves – but he constantly needs to prove his worth.  For a young black man, there is no avoiding the prejudice endemic in society at the time.  Wash is exhausted by the need to prove himself and questions now begin to arise regarding the ethics of removing a person from his environment [however tragic] and transplanting him into another which resists and opposes him at every turn.  One character asks rhetorically – Is it natural to sever low beings from their true and rightful destinies?  From their natural-born purpose? To give them a false sense of agency?  [291].  No answer is offered and the reader must draw her/his own conclusions.

The novel concludes somewhat ambiguously.  Now in Morocco – for reasons best left to the reader to discover – Wash wakes one morning as a sand storm moves in.  As Wash says – There was no trace of human presence anywhere, neither trail nor footsteps.  I stepped out onto the threshold … I went a few steps forward.  [417]

It is a metaphor for his future.  Wash can see nothing behind and nothing in front – apart from the distant blur of the eastern horizon towards which he now takes a few steps.

Washington Black is a brilliant book – beautifully and sensitively written by Esi Edugyan – with a powerful message about how our past is within us and goes with us wherever we go.  Ultimately, we are alone and must determine our own futures.

Esi Edugyan is an award-winning Canadian author.  She has won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Anisfield-Wolf Award and both this book and her previous book Half-Blood Blues have been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize.

Washington Black

[2018]

by Esi Edugyan

Serpent’s Tail

ISBN 978 1 7812 5897 2

417pp; $22.99

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