Featured on England’s Man Booker Prize shortlist this year, Esi Edugyan’s novel, “Washington Black,” might not need any higher recommendation than that. I am going to write this review anyway. “Washington Black” is stunning, simply stunning, and I want to shout it from the rooftops.
The story follows the titular George Washington Black as he comes of age in the 1830s. As a slave on Faith Plantation in Barbados, things initially look bleak for Washington. Growing up without his mother and ostracized by most fellow slaves, Washington sees no future for himself other the drudgery of field work. His master, Erasmus Wilde, is particularly cruel, and life has many perils.
Things change when Erasmus’ brother, Christopher Wilde, arrives at Faith Plantation. Christopher, called Titch by his intimates, is a progressive naturalist and abolitionist. His dearest ambition is to fly across the Atlantic in a “cloud-cutter,” a hot air balloon of his own design. He soon chooses Washington as an assistant.
While Titch educates Washington about various subjects, tensions increase among the Wilde brothers, who have now been joined at Faith by their cousin Philip. He informs the brothers that their father has died.
To make matters worse, Philip’s own suicide soon follows, and Washington, who was present at the time, is implicated in the death. Titch and Washington soon flee Barbados in the Cloud Cutter. Their adventure takes Washington around the world and on a voyage of self-discovery.
There are no perfect novels, but for this reader at least, “Washington Black” comes close to meeting the mark. Written in a neo-Victorian style with sparkling prose and larger-than-life characters, Edugyan’s novel is also remarkable for maintaining a thoroughly convincing sense of place, no matter where her characters are in the world.
Quite apart from being one of the most entertaining and beautiful stories I have read in a long time, however, Edugyan also uses this framework to pose important questions about privilege and the oft-times problematic relationships between oppressed people and their “saviors.”
Edugyan points out that those stripped of their humanity under the yoke of oppressive systems struggle to leave a legacy behind and reminds us that families come in many forms and can be made under the most unexpected circumstances.