Welcome to my first review of 2019! Washington Black is an outstanding book to start the year. Esi Edugyan has created a genre-defying novel that veers between slave narrative and fantastical adventure with a dash of steampunk thrown in.
The reader is transported to a Barbados plantation in the nineteenth century, to meet the novel’s narrator, child slave, George Washington Black (known as ‘Wash’). Young Wash is forced to work for sadistic Englishman, Erasmus Wilde, who heaps horrific cruelties on his living slaves and desecrates the dead.
Wash, who begins labouring soon as he can walk, has one high point in his life; Big Kit, an older slave who takes him under her wing. Tragedy strikes when he’s separated from this mother-figure and sent to work for Wilde’s brother, ‘Titch’, who has demanded a child servant for (potentially sinister) reasons of his own.
The Cloud Cutter
In an imaginative twist; Titch – who turns out to be a scientist and supporter of abolition – is building a flying machine, described as a ‘cloud cutter’. Less brutal than his brother, he encourages Wash’s talent for drawing and the two flee the plantation to the frozen Arctic.
When Titch eventually abandons Wash, the young man is forced to wonder whether his mentor ever truly saw him as a person. Still little more than a child, Wash builds a new life that sees him meeting Tanna, a scientist’s daughter and travelling the world.
Slavery and Science
Washington Black is a story about slavery, science, love, family and freedom. Wash’s character jumps off the page. He’s a talented illustrator and scientist who makes an important contribution to his chosen field. He also achieves the “great big life” and physical freedom Big Kit had promised him in his childhood.
Yet, Wash’s life as a young adult is still marked by the physical and psychological scars of slavery and racism. His first few years away from the plantation are marked by fear of re-capture. Later, as a scientist, he never receives the recognition he deserves; a white man is credited for his ground-breaking idea.
The inequality in Wash’s friendship with Titch is also heartbreaking. Wash realises that his mentor is happy to cast him aside and possibly sees him as a cipher for slavery rather than a child in his own right. Wash’s life as a young adult is wrapped up in processing these views, which eventually leads him to a trip to a Moroccan desert and this book’s beautiful but slightly bemusing finale.
Verdict: Washington Black is a wonderfully written page turner that combines a post-slavery story with outstanding scientific achievements. Wash’s journey through life makes compelling reading. The ending was stunning but left me slightly confused – if you have your own theories, let me know in the comments below!