Rating: 3.5 stars
I was itching to read Washington Black as soon as it made the long list for the 2018 Booker Prize. Its strapline “Escape is only the beginning” carried an air of intrigue and adventure with it, and the premise of a young black slave plucked from the horrors of plantation life to assist an inventor in his flights of fancy promised something a little different in approach to the usual telling of the story of slavery. The book mostly hits its mark and is worthy of its place on the Booker short list, the thing that prompted me to pick the book off the New Stock Just In shelves at the library.
It’s not necessary to have read any Black history in order to enjoy Esi Edugyan’s novel about slavery and emancipation, but I was glad to have read David Olusoga’s Black and British, because it helped me to appreciate the nuances in Edugyan’s writing, the brief references to places and actions that underpinned the development of the Atlantic slave trade.
Washington Black is an interesting book in lots of ways. The title character is a young boy at the start of the novel. We see events from his perspective. Edugyan doesn’t need to labour the point – Wash is an intelligent boy who is treated like an animal by the white people around him, even his benefactor Titch. No matter that Titch treats him kindly and gives him opportunities that wouldn’t typically be accessible to Black slaves in the Caribbean, Titch is still surprised that a creature like Wash has the intelligence to learn to read, to make accurate natural history drawings, to assist him in his scientific endeavours. To Titch, Wash is an experiment and an indulgence.
Wash belongs to Titch’s older brother, a man who has inherited a sugar plantation and uses it as an opportunity to escape his life in England. He takes to the role of plantation owner and slaver with gusto. Edugyan is bold in her depictions of his first weeks in charge of Faith Plantation and his use of extreme brutality to control his slaves mentally as well as physically.
Plantation life and the condition of the enslaved African on the plantation are the backdrop to Wash’s early story, rather than being the main event. I found this focusing on one slave’s unusual experience to be a powerful tool in exploring slavery and emancipation, in a way that was different to a straight depiction of the brutality of slavery.
Wash becomes privileged, in a way, through his association with Titch, and it’s this perceived privilege that causes friction between him and the other slaves. Wash has been cared for by a woman known as Big Kit from a young age, and when he encounters her again, serving at the plantation owner’s dinner table with a different young boy, Wash feels the loss of his former closeness with Big Kit physically. Other slaves chosen to serve at the master’s house also view Wash with reservation, and one in particular seeks to undermine his position, with life changing consequences.
Titch is a botanist with an interest in invention. He has designed a type of hot air balloon that he calls a Cloud Cutter. The passages describing the erection of the balloon reminded me of the transportation of the glass church in Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda, and the movement of cannons through the Amazonian jungle in the Herzog film Aguirre, Wrath of God.
The Cloud Cutter is Wash and Titch’s escape route from the perils emanating from events on Faith Plantation. It gets them onto a rum running ship, with characters reminiscent of Eco’s The Island of the Day Before, and eventually to Virginia, where Wash experiences the fullest expression of racial hatred and makes a realisation that a child of fourteen shouldn’t have to make.
I was so frightened I closed my eyes, as if he might then disappear. 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, and to no one.
Edugyan is masterful in the way she makes clear the difference between Wash’s era and our own. Not just in the realisation that, although a fourteen year old boy shouldn’t experience existential crisis at such a young age, in the early 19th century it was more likely that a poor teenager would be an orphan and a black teenager would also be dehumanised, but also in the hardness of grief, shown in the reaction of Titch and his brother to news of their father’s death. When each of my parents died, I experienced an immediate grief and struggled with the expectation of the world around me that I would have dealt with that grief in the two weeks of compassionate leave I received. When Titch receives news that his father has died, eight months have already passed. The news has had to travel from his place of death to his wife who has then had to dispatch the news to her sons in Barbados. I realise that such a delay only applied to those who lived their lives in travel, but it still struck me as a strange situation to be in, grieving for someone who is long dead, whom you didn’t know you had lost until eight months had passed, experiencing the shock of loss and then the shock of not knowing.
The combination of reading one character’s grief alongside another character’s realisation that they are alone in the world really affected me. It made me think about how long grief lasts and how, in British culture anyway, we’re not supposed to indulge ourselves in feeling sad for too long, or acknowledge that losing someone close is continuously hard to bear, not even to people who share our experience of that kind of loss.
I was also affected by the way Edugyan depicts the relationship between Wash and Titch at the point when Titch, in an effort to protect Wash and deliver him into freedom, ends up making Wash feel rejected.
… I had been raised on chains and blood, suffering for even an unmeant kindness. And into that life had walked Titch, and he had looked upon me with his calm eyes and seen something there, a curiosity for the world, an intelligence, a talent with images I had until then been unaware of.
Wash feels noticed by Titch, appreciated by him, and this gives him a different meaning to his life. The thought that Titch would send him away, for whatever reason, is another orphaning for Wash.
Titch brings Wash to Nova Scotia and from there Wash has to make his own way in the world. He travels to America, living among a community of free Blacks and always on his guard against recapture. He becomes assistant to another botanist who, after a brutal attack meted out by the man once employed to recapture him, takes Wash back to London. Wash has fallen in love with Tanna, the botanist’s daughter, who helps him to see his relationship with Titch differently. By the time Wash is settled in London, he is able to think honestly about his past. He draws a sketch of Faith Plantation in which the horrific violence perpetrated on black bodies are as much a part of the landscape as the architecture.
There were the fanged metal jaws of a mantrap meant to catch runaways, and the blood-blackened boulder upon which several men had been whipped dead, and there was the solitary redwood wide as a carriage, from which a weathered noose hung. And there were knife marks in the tree’s bark, where men had been pinned through the throat and left to perish, and there were the raw patches where the grass had not grown back since the bodies of the old and infirm had been set there to rot.
And above it all, pristine and untroubled, sat Wilde Hall, with its clear view to the sea – a sea turquoise and glistening with phosphorus, the miles of sand pure and white as salt.
I found the final part of the novel less convincing than what had gone before. Wash’s new life in London was, I think, supposed to be found remarkable by the reader, but there is little in the narrative worth remarking on. The story bounces along from episode to episode without much exploration of how Wash feels, or much detail in the events that are happening. In tracking down Titch, journeys to Holland and Morocco are taken, but unlike the ship journey from Barbados to Virginia, we’re not given much insight into the emotional impact these journeys have on Wash. A lot happens in what seems like a short period. Wash discovers that Titch is still alive, that Big Kit is dead, and he realises who his mother is. Edugyan chooses not to have Wash express the full emotion he must be feeling, instead hurrying the story on to its conclusion. It’s an ending that involves a reunion that I didn’t think was necessary, or the most interesting of the potential conclusions to Wash’s journey from pre-teen to adult.
In fact, I took as long to read the last 100-some pages as I did the 300 or so that went before. I wasn’t as emotionally engaged with the ending, I guess. To me, it felt like The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock had done a better job with the story of scientific spectacle in early modern London, and Edugyan had missed an opportunity somehow to explore Black lives in post-emancipation England.
At the end of the book, Wash learns that some people are destined to repeat their past mistakes because they can’t make peace with who they are. We’re left to guess whether Wash is one of them. I suppose that’s where the strapline comes in. Escape has been the beginning to Wash’s story, but we don’t know the ending. Personally, I felt that I knew relatively little about Wash, despite spending more than 400 pages reading about him, and didn’t really care what happened to him next.