The Thrills of Escape and Adventure

In a 19th century sugar plantation in the Caribbean island of Barbados, a black child was born. The newly born child was named George Washington “Wash” Black by Faith Plantation’s owner, a part of a long standing tradition. Orphaned at a young age, Wash was taken under the care of a fellow plantation slave, Big Kit. Domineering but also softhearted, Big Kit watched over and nurtured the young Wash as though he was her own son.

With the death of the old plantation owner, a new era was ushered in, one that was marked by violence and abuse. The previous owner’s nephew, Erasmus Wilde, who never for once visited the plantation. Took over the plantation’s reins. His mean streak made the plantation witness a score of unjust executions, coupled with a surge in the case of suicides. Under Erasmus’ tyrannical rule, with abuse descending from every corner, the future looked bleak for Wash and the denizens of the plantation.

“Tell me, child, have you ever witnessed a harvest moon through a reflector scope?” Erasmus’ younger brother, Christopher ‘Titch” innocently asked the bewildered Wash. Newly arrived in the island, he was looking for a place to continue his scientific ventures. To assist him in his ambitious project, a Cloud-Cutter, Titch requested for a slave assistant. Reluctantly, Erasmus approved Wash’ rendering assistance to Titch and his eccentric works.

“You took me on because I was helpful in your political cause. Because I could aid in your experiments. Beyond that I was of no use to you, and so you abandoned me.I was nothing to you. You never saw me as 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.” ~ Esi Edugyan, Washington Black

Titch soon learned that Wash was more skilled than meets the eye, that he was more than just a mere work horse. Wash has an aptitude for illustrating things and capturing life through his pencils, even from just one glance. While working on his enigmatic project, Titch inevitably grew close to Wash. They formed a bond that blew Wash out of the Barbados and sailed him towards uncharted territories, from the Arctic to Morocco.  Wash, already eighteen years of age, walks the readers through his life in Esi Edugyan’s 2018 Man Booker shortlisted work, Washington Black.

Washington Black was advertised as work of historical fiction. History, especially the African slave trade, is a diverse and vast portrait which supplied Edugyan with the necessary materials to paint an even more vivid and intricate depiction of the past. The product of Edugyan’s careful weaving was palpable at the first few chapters of the story, particularly with how Erasmus treated his subjects in Faith Plantation. The day-to-day activities of the slave were vividly depicted by Edugyan. Wash laid witness to many of these violent scenes. Edugyan was slowly pulling the readers in, making them feel sympathy for the helplessness that the slaves felt. These ghastly scenes were graphically and powerfully enriched by Edugyan’s knack for description.

Taking a step out of the cliched ordinary historical novel laden with details of violence, abuse and racism, Edugyan introduced a new and unique element in the novel to make the story stand out. Woven into the novel’s tapestry are elements of science. Titch took after his father in his penchant for science and discovery. Titch’s most ambitious project, the Cloud-Cutter, is a prototype of the modern hot air balloon. Titch initiated Wash into his world and through Wash’s sketches, their endeavors were documented.

As the narrative progresses, the novel’s strongest element started to surface. The Cloud-Cutter is an allegory for the search and thirst for knowledge. However, it takes an even deeper and more relevant meaning in the context of the story. It represented freedom, being unbound by the manacles that keep one grounded. As a Black slave in the 19th century, freedom is everything that a slave can yearn for. Titch’s subtle abetting for abolitionist philosophies is a spark of hope, a stark dichotomy from his brother’s cruelty and tyranny. In a nutshell, Edugyan started strongly.

“The wrecked visage I was forced to carry like an unwanted warning to others was to her a known thing, a familiar mask. She seemed to see beneath it something of her own suffering and recovery—the acceptance of a life-changing wound, the will to go on.” ~ Esi Edugyan, Washington Black

Avoiding a linear and straightforward narrative, Edugyan gave light distractions which, at times enriched the story, but most of the times, these details muddled the story. These overtures include discussion of the unusual professions of the characters and talks on marine life. The novel is about freedom but it also touches about running away from people who were paid to impede it. Because of this, the readers were forcibly tugged from one location to another which were randomly picked rather than carefully chosen to enrich the narrative. This context was shallowly developed and did not provide any sufficient tension or intrigue to stir up the story line.

The progress made by the opening chapters, however, were slowly undid when the narrative morphed into an adventure novel. The novel’s pace and tone inevitably started to take a different form. Wash’s story still loomed above the other elements of the story but the swing was shapeless, a little too unnatural, a little too forced. Beyond Wash narrating the story, nothing reconciled or even gave any semblance of connection between the earlier parts of the novel and the rest of the story. The adventure part was dull, predictable and, at countless turns, implausible. This unexpected turn tarnished the story and it ended up becoming what it initially avoided, an ordinary and predictable story. Apart from the Faith Plantation scenes, there was very little reality to the rest of the story.

The unexpected swing also ushered in a motley crew of underdeveloped secondary characters. In stark dichotomy to the strong and gritty characters of Faith Plantation, Wash’s adventure made him encounter placid and, at times, passive characters. For a character-driven narrative, the perspective of the main character slowly started to get murky. Washington Black, as a character, was strong and relatable on many levels. His distinct voice loomed above the narrative. One can get, however, the sense that Edugyan was forcing the readers to sympathize with him, rather than letting it develop naturally.

Despite the radical blunders in the development of the story and the characters, Edugyan’s writing stood out. Washington Black, sans these flaws, is a well-written narrative. The novel started on a very strong note, riveting the readers to what could possibly be a strong and promising story. Unfortunately, the lofty promise lasted as far as the novel’s first part. With the dropping of the many of the elements that enticed the readers, such as the scientific endeavors, the story started losing luster.

“I understood she desired to know if I had found what I was seeking, if this trip would finally satisfy my erratic pursuit of an unanswerable truth, if it would calm my sense of rootlessness, solve the chaos of my origins for me. She wanted to know if anything would be laid to rest, or if we’d continue to drift through the world together, going from place to place until I made her like me, so lacking a foothold anywhere that nowhere felt like home.” ~ Esi Edugyan, Washington Black

Washington Black was a very promising premise driven by a close-to-memorable character. Edugyan took off to a very strong start anchored on her unconventional merger of dark and heavy subjects and science. The novel’s strongest facets met premature ends even before they could fully develop. The promising start was undid by many unexpected blunders. Just like the Cloud-Cutter, the narrative soared for a short while before it crashed and burned. The boldness, the originality, and the conviction that loomed at the start shrunk as the narrative progressed. It was an unfortunate end to what was a powerful start.

Ratings:

52%

Characters (30%) – 12%
Plot (30%) – 10%
Writing (25%) – 18%
Overall Impact (15%) – 6%

I was very curious about Washington Black as it was cited as one of the New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year in 2018. Naturally, I was intrigued so when I missed the opportunity of purchasing the book, I personally went back to the bookstore to purchase a copy of the book in the hopes that it will transport me to places. It did, transport me to places that is. However, the adventure felt forced, very superficial actually that I ended up being exasperated. The imagery at the start was very strong but it wasn’t sustained when the novel became a pseudo-adventure novel. The adventure part was the novel’s undoing. The saving graces were Washington Black’s distinct voice and Edugyan’s high quality of writing.

Book Specs

Author: Esi Edugyan
Publisher: Vintage
Publishing Date: April 2019
Number of Pages: 384
Genre: Bildungsroman, Historical

Synopsis

Eleven-year-old George Washington Black – or Wash – a field slave on a Barbados sugar plantation, is initially terrified when he is chosen to be the manservant of his master’s brother. To his surprise, however, the eccentric Christopher Wilde turns out to be a naturalist, explorer, inventor, and abolitionist. Soon Wash is initiated into a world where two people, separated by an impossible divide, can begin to see each other as human.

But when a man is killed and a bounty is placed on Wash’s head, they must abandon everything and flee. Spanning the Caribbean to the frozen Far North, London to Morocco, Washington Black is a story of self-invention and betrayal, of love and redemption, and of a world destroyed and made whole again.

About the Author

Esi Edugyan was born in 1978 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Although she was born and raised in Calgary, her parents were immigrants from Ghana. Edugyan completed her creative writing degree at the University of Victoria in British Columbia and was mentored by Jack Hodgins, a renowned Canadian novelist and short story writer. She also earned a master’s degree from John Hopkins Writing Seminars.

Her debut novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne was published in 2004. It met favorable reviews and was shortlisted for the 2005 Hurston-Wright Legacy Award. Despite this relative success, she encountered difficulties securing a publisher for her second fiction manuscript. While spending some time as a writer-in-residence in Stuttgart, Germany, she decided to drop the second manuscript and work instead on another novel. This novel, Half-Blood Blues was published in 2011 and was shortlisted for various prestigious literary awards such as the Man Booker Prize, Scotiabank Giller Prize, Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction. It won the Giller Prize.

Edugyan’s third and latest work, Washingon Black, was published in September 2018. It also won the Giller Prize, making Edugyan just the third multi-awardee. 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. She has also published a nonfiction work, Dreaming of Elsewhere: Observations on Home, in March 2014 and featured in Margaret Busby’s 2019 anthology New Daughters of Africa with the contribution “The Wrong Door: Some Meditations on Solitude and Writing”.

She currently lives in Victoria, British Columbia and is married to fellow novelist Steven Price. The couple has two children.