Esi Edugyan’s Booker-longlisted Washington Black is a gripping tale of slavery, loyalty and freedom

Edugyan shows there is more to bondage than physical captivity.

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The Barbados plantation on which George Washington Black is enslaved is called Faith. This might be considered a heavy irony on the author’s part, but the history of 19th-century slaveholding, which often used texts from the Bible to justify the practice, makes the choice more than credible. “I might have been ten, 11 years old – I cannot say for certain – when my first master died.” The first line of the book, now longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, sets out the terms under which Black’s story will unfold. His true origins are unknown to him, even the year of his birth; he might have been born on the plantation; he might have been born in “a shackled cargo hold”. His whole existence has been defined by the ownership and brutality of another.

The tagline of the novel is “escape is only the beginning”, making it sound like a big-screen thriller. The book is certainly thrilling; but the real question it asks is whether escape, for such a one as Black, is finally ever possible at all.

Washington Black is a gripping tale, made vivid by Esi Edugyan’s gifts for language and character, and by the strength of her story. Though in truth it would be better to say “stories”, for Black’s adventures over the course of this 400-page novel are strikingly various. The book ranges from Barbados to Nova Scotia, from the Arctic to Amsterdam; from England to Morocco. Wash – as he is known to those close to him – is blown by fate all over the surface of the globe. This gives the tale the feel of a picaresque, although Wash has none of the rogueishness usually associated with that term. He is a boy, and then a young man, trying to discover a way to be in the world, despite having been born into circumstances in which he is considered more animal than human.

By the time the reader meets Wash, as he looks back on the adventures that brought him out of slavery, he has found his voice, one of direct, 19th-century eloquence: “I have walked this earth for 18 years. I am a Freeman now in possession of my own person.” But that freedom is hard won, and in the early pages of the book seems unlikely ever to be found. Black takes his surname from that master who died; the new master who takes ownership of the plantation, Erasmus Wilde, is a creature of terrifying brutality. But Erasmus’s brother Christopher – known as Titch – brings a glimmer of light into Wash’s life when he arrives in Barbados.

Titch is a gentleman of the Enlightenment, with advanced scientific ideas. Wash, it turns out, is exactly the right size – small – to be of assistance in testing his “aerostat”: an experimental airship. It is not only Titch’s scientific notions that are ahead of his time; he shares his food with Wash (when the boy tastes hollandaise sauce for the first time, “I did not betray my disgust”), encourages his striking talent for drawing; insists he be called simply Titch, with not even a “mister” attached. For Titch, it turns out, has abolitionist sentiments.

It would not do to reveal much of this breathless story, though there would be no tale if Wash did not get away from Faith. But there is more to bondage than physical captivity: just as the owner’s brand remains burned into Wash’s flesh so his enslavement shadows his mind, even when he finds himself quite literally at the ends of the earth. The Wilde brothers’ father is an Arctic explorer, and when Titch learns of his death he determines to seek out the truth of his demise; Wash determines to go with him.

The mystery at the heart of this novel is Wash’s attachment to Titch; it is the chain that cannot be broken. Wash’s loyalty comes at great cost, but one he is willing to pay: “I had been raised on chains and blood, suffering for even an unmeant kindness. And into that life walked Titch, and he had looked on me with calm eyes and seen something there,” he says. It is almost as if he cannot see it for himself.

If the book sometimes has an aimless feel, leaping from locale to locale, from character to character; that aimlessness is surely a reflection of the effect of brutal ownership on human consciousness. Wash was raised (if the term can even be used) to be wholly without will. In the final paragraph of the novel, Wash crosses a threshold and walks towards the horizon; all his travels, and those of the reader in his company, have led to this. That reader feels honoured to have kept Wash company on his journeying: and moved to see him embark upon his true beginning. 

Washington Black
Esi Edugyan
Serpent’s Tail, 417pp, £14.99

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters”, the novel Seizure and, most recently, Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The inside story of Mossad