When two English brothers take the helm of a Barbados sugar plantation, nervousness and fear run high. Washington Black – an eleven year-old field slave who has known no other life – is aghast to find himself selected as personal servant to one of these men. His new master is the eccentric Christopher Wilde – naturalist, explorer, scientist, inventor and abolitionist – whose single-minded pursuit of the perfect aerial machine mystifies all around him. Through Wilde, Washington is initiated into a world of wonder: a world where the night sea viewed from a hilltop shivers with light; where a simple cloth canopy can propel a man across the sky; where even a boy born in chains may embrace a life of dignity and meaning.
Then, on a disastrous voyage of escape, Wilde disappears. Washington is forced to make his way back to the civilized world alone. One day, however, a man appears in the doorway of his new life, making claims of the past. Is this truly the long-lost Wilde? If so, what are the real motives for his return? And is it possible that his resurrection will destroy everything?
Author Esi Edugyan takes the reader on an adventure filled with fear and hope, by delving into 19th century slaveholding in her latest Man Booker prize shortlisted novel – Washington Black.
The wonderfully alluring story is told through the eyes of slave-born George Washington Black (Wash), who knows nothing about his past. He introduces himself to the reader at the age of 11 while working at “Faith”, a sugar plantation in Barbados. The narrative is very simple, like that of a child.
Escapism is a big theme of the novel. Wash travels around the globe to Nova Scotia, Amsterdam, England and various other countries during his lifetime. But it does also explore darker themes, including violence and terror which Wash became a victim of from birth at the hands of his master, Mr Erasmus Wilde.
Though the book does look into the history of the slave trade, it also deals with the guilt and uncertainty that comes with gaining freedom. Wash shows how difficult it was to leave all that he was familiar with, even though all he knew was the horrendously dangerous conditions he lived in. He missed his guardian figure “Big Kit”, a no-nonsense, kind black woman, who devoted her time at the plantation to protect him.
He spends most of the novel looking over his shoulder, not knowing who to trust and being judged by others for his skin colour. He may have encountered some people who were kind to him but they showed they were always aware that he was different.
Wash from the beginning displays a remarkable ability to understand tasks quickly. He is a fast learner and demonstrates his intelligence through his sketches, becoming important to the scientific projects of highly regarded white men. Everyone he comes across is drawn to him and his skills.
Christopher “Titch” Wilde, Erasmus’ brother, is unique. But the brothers are complete opposites. While the master is very strict and scary, Titch comes across friendlier and has no ambitions to work on the family business. He takes Wash under his wing to help him create his “cloud-cutter”, a balloon-type vessel. At the start he is seen as a source of hope for Wash to live a life he could never have fathomed.
Edugyan’s book ensures a rollercoaster ride of emotions. Wash sees the beauty around him for the first time in his life when he leaves the plantation and the authors descriptions are glorious. Readers will be in awe of Wash’s surroundings as much as he is.
Washington Black is written in four parts. Each part explores different times of his life, from working at the plantation, to flying off in a balloon with Titch, learning to stand on his own two feet and meeting a new companion in Tanna, which blossoms into a small, innocent romance.
For the reader, by the end of the novel, it feels as if we have travelled the world by Wash’s side. This unforgettable book is heartwarming and sad all in one but recreates history in an extraordinary way no one else could have dreamed up.
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