Book review: Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

A fitting testimony to the writer's marvellous storytelling ability and wordcraft
Last Updated 27 October 2018, 19:30 IST

This Man Booker-longlisted book by Canadian writer Esi Edugyan opens in the year 1830. Eleven-year-old Washington Black, who narrates the story for us, is a slave on a Barbados sugar plantation called Faith. We get a child’s-eye view of the cruelty slaves are subjected to. The boy, nicknamed Wash, has no one to turn to except Big Kit, an older woman who is a mother figure to him. Life proceeds thus till Wash’s master Erasmus Wilde is visited by his brother Chirstopher ‘Titch’ Wilde, a man of science, who’s obsessed with his plans of building a hydrogen-buoyed-lighter-than-air contraption he calls a ‘Cloud-cutter’. There begins the story.

Very soon we find Titch wanting Wash as his assistant as he is “precisely the size for my Cloud-cutter,” to provide additional ballast to test the balloon’s viability. Erasmus reluctantly lends Wash to Titch. Wash then moves from working in the fields to cooking, doing the laundry, and serving at table for Titch. Secretly, he draws. He has a natural talent for drawing. Titch discovers this, and tells him, “You are a wonder, truly… You will be the chief illustrator from now on.” A partnership of sorts is thus born. Wash listens to Titch’s scientific theories and accompanies him every day to the hill where the ‘Cloud-cutter’ is assembled.

However, the journey to this companionship has not been easy for Wash. In his initial days with Titch, fear lurks in Wash’s mind of some violence, some abuse, owing to his experience with his master Erasmus Wilde. After all, that’s what slaves are meant for. To be subjected to cruelty. However, Titch baffles him with his kindness. “What an odd man this was,” Wash says. “He smiled, and the strangeness of that smile, its lack of malice, left me confused.” To top it all, Titch nurtures his artistic talent, makes him read classics to improve his diction, and introduces him to the study of nature.

Just as we begin to feel happy for Wash walks in trouble in the form of Philip, Titch’s cousin. Well, this is Edugyan’s way of reminding us, readers, that the story doesn’t proceed on predictable lines. So we see an experiment involving the ‘Cloud-cutter’ leaving Wash with a badly burnt face, a face that makes him notable, no matter where he goes. And, Philip commits suicide to which Wash is witness. Wash fears his masters will think he killed Philip. Titch, the kind man that he is, seeks freedom from slavery for Wash, no matter the consequences. Finally, off they fly on a stormy night, the two of them, in the ‘Cloud-cutter’, crash-land on a ship helmed by secretive twin brothers, and arrive in Virginia. A move that marks Wash’s journey away from slavery, and the beginning of a life that is his own. One that spells empowerment in the true sense of the word.

The narrative takes Wash to antebellum Virginia, the Canadian Arctic, Nova Scotia, England, the Netherlands and Morocco. Places he has never ever dreamt of. A world that he never knew existed. In the course of his journey, he wins some, loses some. While Titch leaves without a trace, he meets Tanna Goff and her naturalist father who introduce him to the study of the natural world, and he gets involved in a tender romantic relationship with Tanna. With the Goffs, he starts work on creating a new museum to display living creatures from the deep.

However, Wash is not ‘free’, we realise. As an escaped slave, there is a price on his head. A bounty hunter is close on his heels. Even after slavery is abolished. No matter where he goes, what he does, he is gripped by a sense of foreboding, a sense of displacement. Not surprising, for the burden of freedom is too much to handle. He’s after all the slave who had asked Big Kit, “What does it feel like, Kit? Free?” Now, he has won freedom, but not from the experiences of his past. “The terrible bottomless nature of the open world, where one belongs nowhere, and to no one,” scares him to no end. The loss of Big Kit troubles him, as also his separation from Titch. Finding Titch becomes an obsession with him. An obsession that takes him places. An obsession that suggests Wash feels free only so long as he remains bound to Titch.

Will Wash find Titch? Will Wash heal? Will Wash break the shackles of his internalised enslavement? Well, on board Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black are all the answers. The ‘Cloud-cutter’ ride is not only fascinating, but one that’s flushed with awe and despair. Equally engrossing as her first two novels, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne and Half-Blood Blues.

A fitting testimony to her marvellous storytelling ability and wordcraft.

(Published 27 October 2018, 19:30 IST)

Follow us on