Reviewed by Annabel
Having been Man Booker shortlisted in 2011 for her debut novel, Half Blood Blues, set in Berlin during WWII and fifty years later, Edugyan’s second novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, about the immigrant experience in 1960s Canada seemed to disappear without trace. But for her third, she is back on the Booker shortlist with Washington Black, a fantastic adventure and historical fiction with hidden depths.
Although it looks a little steampunky, the Victorian gentleman inventor’s flying contraption on the cover is really a mere distraction, a Mcguffin to drive the plot to allow the titular George Washington Black to escape the plantation where he is a slave.
Wash, as he is known, is just eleven when the story begins. He doesn’t know his mother, but Big Kit raised him as if he were her own. Branded ‘F’ for the Faith Plantation and destined for a life of brutality cutting cane in Barbados, he has a stroke of luck when the brother of the old-school plantation owner, Christopher, known as Titch, borrows him to be his assistant. Titch has come to Barbados to build his flying machine in which he believes he will cross the Atlantic. He is an amateur naturalist and progressive politically, treating Wash with kindness and teaching him to read, but still as a servant. Wash is an intelligent boy, interested in Titch’s science; he also discovers an innate artistic talent, a skill which will serve him well in years to come.
He did not ever mistreat me. But is was no kindness; for I knew this must all end, that I would be returned to the cane fields and their brutality someday. And so I did not allow myself to grow comfortable, but instead scrambled after thermometers tossed in the grass, gathered his dropped scopes, carefully folded leaves into the long wooden box he called his vasculum, feeling each evening only relief that I had not been punished.
Forced to flee when Wash is wrongly implicated in a tragedy, Titch takes Wash with him when he is ready to leave the island, but the machine crashes onto a ship set for Canada. Titch plans to get Wash to safety in North Canada where slavery has been abolished and he can be free, but Wash who by now hero-worships his master, follows him to the Arctic where Titch goes to look for his father, a scientific explorer, who had been presumed dead.
Titch eventually forces Wash to make his own life, by abandoning him for his own good. Wash, now a teenager, must make his own way in the world. However, he is always looking over his shoulder for a bounty hunter after escaped slaves, for his former master, Erasmus put a price on his head.
By sheer coincidence, in Nova Scotia he meets Tanna Goff and her father, an eminent marine biologist – author of one of Titch’s favourite textbooks. Tanna is a couple of years older, of mixed race, who, although clever and independent, is yet to find her own place in the world. Wash hopes that will be with him.
Thus, another chapter begins in Wash’s life; however, he has never been able to let his loyalty to and obsession with Titch go. When news comes that Titch may be in Europe, Wash is itching to find a reason to go and search for him.
Moving from the Caribbean to the frozen north, over to England, mainland Europe and beyond, Wash’s life is a big adventure, but one punctuated with periods of hardship, injury and worry. He may have physically escaped the plantation, but he is still exposed to the attitudes of the world at large, which is not yet all singing from the same hymn sheet on the abolition of slavery. Edugyan doesn’t shy away from this, yet she also manages to be light-handed, as this is Wash’s life, and although he often appears an old soul he is just a boy trying to make sense of the world. You feel for Wash from the very first page of this novel.
There is a glorious sense of serendipity that pervades this book. Every time Wash is in trouble or must move on, something will happen to enable it. Despite the time it takes to travel between places in the nineteenth century, it’s a small world, and you’re more likely to encounter those you need to meet (or don’t in the case of the bounty hunter), because everyone knows the people in their field in the Americas and Europe, be it through physical means or publications and the like. This makes sense of the apparent coincidences that happen to Wash and drive the story on to its next episode. Unlike the man whose timing is out of sync in Bob Dylan’s song, A Simple Twist of Fate, Wash finally manages to make the world his oyster. Washington Black is a thoughtful and enjoyable historical adventure novel that did not disappoint.
Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Esi Edugyan, Washington Black (Serpent’s Tail, 2018). 978-1846689598,432pp., hardback.