Did you love adventure stories as a child?
Washington Black, the Booker shortlisted novel by Esi Edugyan, is very much in the mould of the adventure novel although written with an adult reader in mind. It has many of the elements of the adventure tale: a courageous character who goes on a perilous quest to a far-flung location; high octane escapades in the form of a balloon flight and storms; and an ogre who shadows the protagonist wherever he goes.
But to label it simply as an adventure novel would be a gross injustice because this is a multi-layered, hybrid novel in which excitement and thrills are married with thoughtful exploration. It’s a novel crafted with panache that uses thrills, coincidences and twists of fate to explore the nature of enslavement and freedom.
Washington Black opens on a cotton plantation in 19th-century Barbados where her eponymous hero, George Washington (“Wash”) Black, is a young orphan slave. Christopher “Titch” Wilde, brother of the plantation owner, picks Wash to be his personal assistant in an attempt to build a hot air balloon.
Flight To Freedom
The child proves to be a quick learner with a sharp mind and a latent talent as an illustrator. As Titch and Wash form a bond through their joint endeavour, fate thrusts them even closer. The pair literally take flight from the Caribbean to protect Wash from accusations of murder and almost certain execution. A nomadic existence ensues, taking the boy to the Arctic, Nova Scotia, London, Amsterdam, and, finally, Morocco.
It’s a clever device that enables Esi Edugyan to greatly expand her scope. The early chapters which describe the physical brutality and emotional pain of slavery are vivid and memorable. But it’s when Wash is removed from the daily cruelty of slavery that the breadth and ambition of Washington Black become evident.
How Does It Feel To Be Free?
Edugyan’s interest is no less than the nature of freedom itself. Though her protagonist is no longer a plantation slave as Wash roams the world he carries with him the physical marks of his former servitude. A brand on his chest can be hidden but the fascial disfigurement caused by a failed experiment is all too evident. It makes him easy prey for the bounty hunter who stalks him from continent to continent years after slavery is abolished.
As a child Wash had asked a slave woman who befriended him, how it felt to be free. It was, she said, the ability to “go wherever it is you wanting.” But now he has this long desired free movement, he becomes terrified by that freedom. It is, he thinks, like “the terrible bottomless nature of the open world, where one belongs nowhere, and to no one.
He can never entirely separate his new self from his old. Even when he has become an accomplished, though unacknowledged, marine scientist he still thinks of himself as a “disfigured black boy with a scientific turn of mind and a talent on canvas, running, always running, from the dimmest of shadows.”
Journey To Understanding
The countries he visits become allegories of his journey to understand who he really is, and just as significantly, what he means to Titch. He had thought Titch was his friend but then the two became estranged in what Wash sees as an act of betrayal.
For years afterwards, Wash is in turmoil, constantly questioning whether Titch had valued him for as a person, or as a useful pair of hands or an abject creature in need of rescue. In an emotionally charged scene he finally gets to confront Titch.
I was nothing to you. You never saw me as your equal. You were more concerned that slavery should be a moral stain upon white men than by the actual damage it wreaks on black men.
That yearning for truth and for recognition haunts Washington Black. The boy who escaped bondage and eluded a slave catcher has grown up through the course of the novel. But as a young man he is still questioning the past and until he finds the answers, we sense that he will never be happy. Whether he does so by the time we reach the final page is still in doubt since Esi Edugyan leaves us with the kind of ending that is open to more than one interpretation.
What is clear however is that this is a fascinating novel that ranges far and wide geographically but never strays from the central idea about freedom as a state of mind as well as a physical entity.
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan: Fast Facts
Esi Edugyan was raised in Alberta, Canada after her parents immigrated from Ghana. Despite favourable reviews for her debut novel The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, she struggled to find a publisher for her next work. she abandoned that to write Half-Blood Blues, about a young mixed-race jazz musician, for which she won the Giller Prize and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2011.
Washington Black, her third novel, was published in September 2018. It won the Giller Prize that year making Edugyan only the third writer to win the award twice. Washington Black was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and the 2019 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.