Washington Black is a terrific new narrative about enslavement, but that description fails to do it justice. Canadian writer Esi Edugyan’s third novel, long-listed for the Booker Prize, is a multi-faceted tale that travels across geography and history. In its rich details and finely tuned ear for language, the book creates a virtual world, immersing the reader in antebellum America and Canada as well as in Victorian England.
The novel opens in Barbados, 1830, where Washington Black, an orphaned and enslaved boy, lives in brutality. “I cleared the cane, only my sweat was of value. I was wielding a hoe at the age of two.” Washington, or “Wash,” relies on Big Kit to care for him. Big Kit infuses Wash with her dream: to kill them both so that in death they can return to their Dahomey roots.
Fate, however, has other plans. The master dies—“no one grieved him”—and his nephew, Titch, arrives from Britain to assess the estate. Titch, a scientist inventor, soon recognizes Wash’s talent for drawing, derived from his great powers of observation and insight.
Wash’s description of the master’s cousin Philip, newly arrived in Barbados, serves as exquisite foreshadowing:
Across from me Master Philip stared out at the distant tamarinds, their tops bowing in the dull wind. There were red fissures in the whites of his eyes, and under the mountain’s shadow his skin appeared grey. I noticed the flaking red knuckles, so strange on a man of leisure, the mesmerizing whiteness of his teeth; I saw the oddity of a body used for nothing but satisfying urges, bloated and ethereal as sea foam, as if it might break apart. He smelled of molasses and salted cod, and of the fine sweetness of mangoes in the hot season. I eyed him uneasily.
Titch convinces his brother, the new plantation master, to “loan” him Wash. Together Titch and Wash work on experiments and Titch begins to educate Wash. Titch builds a Cloud Cutter (flying machine), in which he and Wash are forced to escape following a suicide for which Wash is framed for murder.
Since Titch has not paid his brother for Wash, Wash is in jeopardy both as an alleged criminal and as “stolen property.” Wash travels—hunted and battered—through America and Canada. Here is Wash, escaped from America but still at peril in Nova Scotia:
I was everywhere uneasy in my skin, and this made me irritable and nervous and desperately melancholy, though I could not then have expressed it so. The fear, the fear was always with me. And not just of [the bounty hunter’s] agents—kidnappers generally roamed the coast, and in the rainy, grey dusk they would stun a freed man in the street and drag him half-conscious onto a ship bound for the Southern states, to make of him a slave again.
Spoilers prevent explaining why and how Wash and Titch end up in the Arctic, but the trek is fraught with danger and thoroughly engaging. Edugyan captures the Arctic so artfully, you want to reach for your parka to stay warm:
Ah, but the cold. I dreamed about that cold for years after. It had a colour, a taste—it wrapped itself around one like an unwelcome skin and began, ever so delicately, to squeeze….
I had been warned … that snow was white, and cold. But it was not white: it held the colours of the spectrum. It was blue and green and yellow and teal; there were delicate pink tintings in some of the cliffs as we passed. As the light shifted in the sky, so too did the snow around us deepen, find[ing] new hues, the way an ocean is never blue but some constantly changing colour. Nor was the cold simply cold—it was the devouring of heat, a complete sucking of warmth from the blood until what remained was the absence of heat. When the wind stirred, it would scythe through the skin as if we were the cane and the wind were our terrible reaping.
This isn’t just a novelist’s flight of fancy; only a few decades after the time period in Washington Black, Matthew Henson began accompanying Robert Peary on his arctic expeditions. For over two decades, Henson, a black man, proved pivotal to the missions. He mastered Inuit and served as an indispensable physical and intellectual guide, despite Peary’s efforts to obscure Henson’s role.
More important than travelogue, however, is Washington Black’s interrogation of human attachment. Now a man, Wash struggles over his relationship with Titch. Their connection is encumbered with race and class issues, as well as Titch’s emotional baggage. Wash raises questions that are a template for examining the insanity of slavery and its damaging aftermath, even when the players consider themselves well-intentioned. Is Titch trying to be Wash’s father? If so, he is a crushing letdown. With his own selfish cares, Titch turns out to be emotionally stunted. He fails as a protector, unable or unwilling to appreciate the threats to Wash’s life. This is Wash, assaulted as he arrives with Titch in slave-holding Virginia, following their escape from Barbados:
I was so frightened I closed my eyes…. I did not know where Titch had gone to, but I understood, in that moment, the terrible bottomless nature of the open world, when one belongs nowhere, to no one.
At great peril, Washington Black makes his way to England, where he struggles to survive. In an effort to recapture his scientific past, he returns to drawing and acquires a student, Tanna, the adored daughter of a foibled zoologist/marine explorer. Tanna is a young woman who defies the stereotypes of her class and sex, and is nothing if not forthright.
“You are like an interruption in a novel, Wash….”
“I do not read novels.”
“Do not let my endorsement dissuade you. They are not all as I describe.”
Wash may an exemplar of the rational man, but the love story between Tanna and Wash is refreshing in its oddities and unconventionalities.
Edugyan is a virtuosic writer. Her second novel, Half-Blood Blues, captures the racism and terror in 1939 Berlin and Paris through the lives of two jazz musicians. There too, she demonstrates an ear for dialogue and a facility for conjuring time and place. Along with creating an entire world in Washington Black, Edugyan satisfies the ultimate demand we make of novels: an intriguing examination of unanswerable, but essential, questions.