Shortlisted for the 2018 Booker Prize, Washington Black is the story of George Washington Black, a child slave on a sugar plantation in Barbados.
The book continues the theme of author Esi Edugyan’s previous novel, Half Blood Blues, which features Hiero, a black musician sent to Sachsenhausen. Both stories centre on how human creativity persists in the face of cruelty and oppression.
In Washington Black, Wash is brutalised by the horrors of plantation life, intensified after the late slave rebellions in Barbados, Jamaica and Demerara, and carries a reminder of this violence after being badly burned in an accident, which maims his face. He is tormented by new plantation owner Erasmus Wilde. Brought into the big house as a waiter, Wash is chosen by Wilde’s brother, Titch, to be his assistant in various experiments. It is here that Wash discovers his skill as an artist, and a thirst for scientific knowledge.
“What does it feel like, Kit? Free?” Washington asks of Big Kit, a female slave who acts as his protector. Freedom, she says, is simply being able to “go wherever it is you wanting”. Wash acts upon this advice with Titch; through their construction of a “Cloud Cutter” balloon, beautifully depicted on the book’s cover by Joe Wilson, he escapes the plantation, and begins a journey that takes him through Nova Scotia, the Arctic, Amsterdam, London and Morocco.
He eventually creates the world’s first aquarium, brilliantly portraying the world of eccentric Victorian innovators. But his past is never far behind him, both in his own psychological scars, and in the pursuit of a vicious bounty hunter.
Wash is caught between worlds — between slavery and freedom, between his artistic and scientific pursuits, between high society’s respect for his academic achievements and as a black man in a still deeply racist world. The novel also asks questions of the more enlightened white characters — does Titch help Wash because of his abolitionist beliefs, or is there a more self-serving element to his actions?
While occasionally lacking in pace, especially with an obligatory romantic subplot, the form of a first person adventure novel is an innovative way to unravel ideas about slavery, racism, dual identities, and the scientific explosion in the 19th century.