Book review: Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

(image courtesy Allen & Unwin Book Publishers)

Washington Black by Canadian writer Esi Eugyan is, quite simply one of the most exquisitely, beautifully well-written books you will ever read about one of the most horrifying things imaginable.

A recounting of one remarkable young man’s journey from the sweat-and-toil cane fields of Barbados, rife with aristocratic indulgence and the cruel barbarism of slavery, to the snowy wastes of the Canadian Arctic and on to London and Morocco, Washington Black is one of those compelling novels that seizes at your soul and refuses to let go.

You will, almost from the first superlatively-expressed word, be happy to allow it, with the honesty and truthfulness of the wretchedness and horror of slavery balanced, somewhat at least for how can you ever repair such a fabric in the psyche of humanity, with Washington’s willingness to push ever further into his new life, even if, much of the time, he feels as if the old one never left him.

For in the midst of his quest to escape the soul-scarring bonds of slavery – this is not, even remotely hyperbole; the book is as much about the way it corrosively seeps into the heart and mind as much as it often mortally injures the body – Washington is constantly brought back to Barbados, to Kit, the maternal figure who protected him in the unrelenting world of cane fields labour, to the wounds inflicted on him and to the masters who saw him as nothing more than a possession, worth less than many of the items in their sprawlingly-obscene homes.

“Of course I had {seen a bit of blood]. We had lived in blood for years, my entire life. But something about that evening — the gleaming beauty of the master’s house, the refinements, the lazy elegance — made me feel a profound, unsettling sense of despair. It was not only William’s mutilation that day, knowing his head stared out even now, in the darkness. What I felt at that moment, though I then lacked the language for it, was the raw, violent injustice of it all.” (P. 28)

If it sounds grim, much of the time it is, or at least has the potential to be.

This is no Disneyana dash into the brand new life, rife with kindly folks, words of wisdom and the thrill of unfettered freedom; they are there, to some realistic extent and it is because of them that Washington persists in his, at times involuntary pursuit of his unexpected new life.

But like anyone loosed from despair after years of physical, emotional and verbal abuse, you don’t simply flick a switch, leaving the old you behind and throwing on the new as if what went before it never existed.

Edugyan explores how the deep, lasting pain of the past informs the present and imperils the future if you let it with Washington, who it turns out is a gift illustrator of the natural world as well possessed of a keen mind that dreams up the first aquariums on public display in London, struggles to feel at ease in the second chance existence he is given.

An existence that comes about because Washington is given, temporarily at the time, to Christopher “Titch” Wilde, the younger brother of Faith plantation’s new master Erasmus who is diabolically dismissive of the humanity of his slaves, a man who is thoughtful and curious, a naturalist, scientist and abolitionist, who treats his new charge as a friend of sorts, though not, as Washington points out, not wholly so.

In many meaningful ways, Titch does transform Washington’s life.

Spirited from the uncertainty and unrelenting harshness of the cane fields, and educated and given the time to draw as he assists Titch with cooking, cleaning and the labour needed to bring his flying contraption, the Cloud-cutter, to aerial reality, Washington’s new world, though it sits uncomfortably, initially at least, cheek-by-jowl, with the old, is a revelation.

Though he often feels like a different sort of possession, despite Titch’s kindnesses, Washington discovers there is far more to life, and crucially to him, that he ever imagined.

In the back-breaking labour of Barbadian slave life, the idea that anyone would have the time to draw or be taught to read and write is so unimaginable as to be laughably cruel; but here is Washington, talking now like an Englishman, the patois of the huts he once called home, left behind like the rags he once dressed in, doing all that and more.

And even when events conspire to force he and Titch to flee the island, his life education continues, in places far from home, all of them promising both exciting possibility and the shadow of the old.

“It had happened so gradually, but these months with Titch had schooled me to believe that I could leave all misery behind, I could cast of all violence, outrun a vicious death. I had even begun thinking I’d been born for a higher purpose, to draw the earth’s bounty, and to invent; I had imagined my existence a true and rightful part of the natural order. How wrong-headed it had all been. I was a black boy, only — I had no future before me, and little grace or mercy behind me. I was nothing, I would die nothing, hunted hastily down and slaughtered.” (P. 165)

It is the psychology of freedom and second chances with which Washington Black concerns itself, its unsparing recounting of humanity’s horrific cruelty to its fellow citizens told in prose so luminously lush that you will yourself to remember each and every divinely-lovely phrase.

In this pursuit, it is quite real in its assessment of even the best of people Washington encounters, but for all its grim acknowledging of the horrors meted out to people like Washington, not simply on Barbados but elsewhere too where the idea that people can be equal, no matter the colour of their skin, is a minority sensibility (though it does end slavery in the UK in the early 1830s), there is also hope, love and a searing sense that for all the sense that you can’t leave the past behind, that abandoning the future because of it is equally foolish.

The wonderful part of Washington Black is that remains authentically true to its recounting of the regressively-racist mores of the day, and sadly far too much of our contemporary world too, and how that has lasting effects on people, it also offers, in its exploration of Wash’s strange new journey and life around the world, the idea that change is possible, and that second chances, though encumbered by the past, aren’t ruined by them.

Edugyan’s wondrously-told book, rightly-described by American author Attica Locke as a “masterpiece”, is confronting, sorrowing and harrowing but it is also rich and true, hopeful and curious, alive with possibility, a realistic assessment of the power of the power of second chances to transform and bring alive, as long as you can understand that you will never quite leave the past behind you and that you must make decisions on a daily basis about the place it has in your present, and miraculously, your future.

(image via Amazon)

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