Book review: Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

 

Most classic coming-of-age stories – Jane Eyre, for instance, or Great Expectations – follow a protagonist as they come to explore their place in the world. Mistakes are made, lessons learnt. By the end of the narrative, good and evil are no longer as clear-cut as the protagonist once thought. In order to grow up, a character must come to terms with how naive they once were.

So much is true of the the eponymous protagonist of Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black. He leaves his home, explores the world, and becomes a man. But Washington’s home is no home at all: it is a West Indian plantation in the early 1800s, and he is a child slave. His exploration is an escape, as he accompanies his master’s brother on a cross-continental journey of scientific discovery. In this way, as in many others, Edugyan is unafraid to take known ideas that step further, reclaiming them thoroughly as her own.

Ever since I first spotted Washington Black on the Serpent’s Tail catalogue, I’d been determined to pick up a copy as soon as it was published. In the end I didn’t even have to wait that long, as I won a proof copy via the publisher’s Twitter giveaway. Even before its publication this August, Washington Black has been making waves thanks to its inclusion on the Man Booker longlist, as it follows in the footsteps of Edugyan’s second novel Half Blood Blues, which was shortlisted for the award in 2011.

First and foremost, Washington Black is a pacy, gripping adventure story, with plenty of sharp dialogue plot developments to keep you turning the page. Through Wash’s first-person perspective, Edugyan’s narrative voice is crisp and engaging, and genuinely evocative of 19th-century prose. Take, for instance, Wash’s description of his master:

Under the burnished candlelight he looked as he had in the field – waxy and ill, the same colour as the rind of hard cheese that lay on the table before them. His flesh was slack, tired.

In an interview that accompanied my proof copy, the Serpent’s Tail editors likened Edugyan’s style somewhat to that of classic authors like Jules Verne and Charles Dickens (as well as Colson Whitehead), but struggled to find one clear fit. I’d have to agree: Washington Black is a book that emulates the best of these literary voices while being entirely of itself, a classic book that never alienates the modern reader.

And as a modern reader, nothing absorbed me quite as much as Washington Black‘s detailed exploration of early 19th Century scientific endeavours. Through Titch, his master’s scientifically minded brother, Wash encounters (among other topics) lighter-than-aircraft, Arctic exploration, and marine biology, and in the process hones his talent for scientific illustration. Science, in Washington Black, means freedom. Most obviously, it means freedom for Wash, but also for Titch, whose scientific pursuits are an excuse not to take part in the family business of slaveholding. Without giving too much away, it is also a route to freedom for two men for whom scientific discovery provides a purpose and the means to literally go to the ends of the Earth to escape the disapproval of early 19th Century society.

Edugyan_2But, while science in Washington Black is often celebrated, it is not without its negative side. Most explicitly, there is the slave-hunter whom Wash encounters in his travels, who (like so many evil people now and throughout history) use science to legitimize their twisted beliefs; in his case, a quote by Aristotle is all he needs to feel righteous. And then there is the more subtle, but arguably far more significant, issue of white scientists in the book who are only able to pursue their studies and passions through the funds generated by slavery. Take Titch, for instance, who claims to despise slavery yet has his family’s slaves build his airship. There’s his father, who is able to explore the world using funds generated by the plantation. Both are able to escape the horrific brutality of the plantation, yes, but only by first benefiting from it.

Early in the novel, as Titch begins training Wash to be his illustrator, he tells him to “be faithful to what you see […] not to what you are supposed to see.” This sentiment applies as much to Edugyan’s writing as it does to Wash’s art. It could have been easy to position Titch as a purely heroic figure, the man who brings about Wash’s escape, and in doing so ignore his family ties to the slave trade. It could have been easy for Wash to find his solace and even success in his scientific pursuits at the end of the book. But, while Washington Black is easy to read, it by no means takes the easy path. In her Serpent’s Tail interview, Edugyan explains that:

I’m fascinated by historical science: discoveries, inventions, the dismissal of one theory in favour of a better one. There’s something in that which resembles, I think, the way we go through the world, the stages of a life. [Marine science] is how [Washington] comes to have a sense of purpose and worth in the world, even as he recognizes that science is an imperfect field, and that its infinite theories can be warped into evil.

In this respect, Washington Black is far more than just a coming-of-age story. As Wash grows to understand the complexities of the society in which he lives, so too do we as the reader; we are forced to confront the complicity of characters who might have otherwise been purely ‘good’, and in doing so consider how even to this day, we benefit from the wealth generated by the horrors of slavery. It’s a remarkable book, and one that thoroughly deserves its place on the Man Booker longlist.

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