Man Booker 2018: Washington Black

13th September 2018

Washington Black, Esi Edugyan,

Serpent’s Tail, London, 2018

Reviewed by Jill Glenn

With themes of slavery and freedom, escape and pursuit, at its heart, you might tag ‘Washington Black’ as ‘The Underground Railroad’ of the 2018 list, but it is a very different proposition. This inventive, imaginative novel, the third from Canadian Esi Edugyan – whose second, ‘Half Blood Blues’, was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2011 – is a fast-paced, richly plotted adventure story that twists and turns through ever more fantastical plot devices, and its settings read like the location list for a modern blockbuster movie: Barbados, Virginia, the Arctic, Nova Scotia, London, Amsterdam, Morocco. Not all of these, one imagines, would have been the subject of one of those popular 19th century Baedeker’s Guides… but Edugyan moves the narrative from one to the other with largely convincing ease, vivid detail and what feels like authenticity.

Despite the wild trajectory of the narrative, though, don’t expect an easy read. Edugyan has the linguistic skill and integrity to convey the experience of life on the ironically-named Faith Plantation with ferocious simplicity. It’s a powerful introduction to what is, essentially, a coming-of-age story, with characters that spring fully-formed from the page.

Our hero (and narrator), George Washington Black, known as Wash, is plucked from the slave quarters at the age of 11 to act as assistant and personal servant to the plantation owner’s brother, Christopher ‘Titch’ Wilde – an eccentric inventor, naturalist and abolitionist, with a particular interest in developing an early hot-air balloon. Titch treats Wash with compassion and humanity, teaching him to read, discovering his ability to draw, giving him opportunities previously unimagined. Just as Wash is beginning to settle to this new way of living, however, he is implicated in a violent act on the plantation. Together he and Titch flee, in a crazy aerial episode that ends aboard a merchant ship which eventually delivers the pair to the east coast of America and more mad, terrifying adventures on the road. It is freedom, but not as we know it: a life haunted and hunted by the past.

It is hardly surprising that Wash – ‘a disfigured black boy with a scientific turn of mind…running, always running from the dimmest of shadows’ – is traumatised by all the transformations he is forced to undergo; it takes him a long time to settle, to grow into himself, to understand his place in the world and dare to occupy it.

‘Washington Black’ is a novel of ambitious scope that pays respectful attention to scientific endeavour, from aeronautical experimentation to arctic exploration to marine biology. It does have its flaws – some of the plot elements are woven in by the slenderest of threads, and some of the characters’ motivations don’t quite ring true – but it has a strong narrative thrust and a natural energy and gravitas that make it compelling in spite of its weaknesses. It may lack the literary heft of some of its fellow Man Booker nominees (it’s certainly at the accessible end of the longlist) but it’s none the worse for that. In the weight and detail it gives to the intimate relationships – between master and slave, between employer and assistant, between lovers – it both asks us what it is that makes us human, and gives us meaningful answers. And it’s a great read, too.

Find Your Local