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Review: Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan
Random House/Vintage, 2019. 384 pp. $17

There may be more brutal, unfeeling masters than Erasmus Wilde, owner of Faith sugar plantation in Barbados in 1830, but it’s hard to imagine. For instance, when a slave commits suicide, an overseer decapitates his corpse. Why? The slaves believe that once they die, they’ll be reunited with their people in Africa. So Wilde tells them that headless corpses wander for eternity; beware, there’s no escape. If you kill yourself, you’re a thief, stealing his property.

Such crushing logic, which warps every conceivable interaction, cows nearly all the slaves into hopeless submission; most do all they can to remain inconspicuous. Consequently, when Wilde’s brother Christopher comes to stay, eleven-year-old George Washington Black (known as Wash) is terrified to discover that he’s been chosen the newcomer’s manservant.

To his amazement, however, Christopher — who insists on being called Titch — is cut from a very different cloth, as Wash quickly learns whenever he must go to the big house and wait table. Titch has no interest in slavery, except to abolish it; and Faith’s chief attractions for him are the flora and fauna and a steep hill from which he hopes to launch a balloon for exploration.

Bridgetown, Barbados, in 1848, fourteen years after Britain outlawed slavery throughout the empire (from Robert H. Schombergk, The History of Barbados; courtesy British Library via Wikimedia Commons)

But a suspicious death forces the two to flee — and from that moment, Wash begins to imagine the life he could never have dreamed of. Whether he gets it or not, and how he reinvents himself in the process, makes as compelling a novel as you will find. Washington Black will captivate you and make you think.

Edugyan examines, from the inside, what it means to be a slave, to have no will of your own save what little is granted, and which may be taken away at any time. That sounds obvious, but I assure you, in its moment-to-moment portrayal here, that simply stated condition has deep, insidious effects that wrap around the characters like the roots of an evil, destructive plant.

Titch may dislike slavery, yet Wash wonders what, exactly, he means to his new boss. Is Wash a real person or merely the perfect size and shape ballast for the balloon? Is his a young mind Titch respects, or does the scientist teach him what he needs to become a better assistant? As with all the characters, and I do mean all, the author depicts this pair in their fullness, so that you know their internal struggles. Even Erasmus Wilde, a truly despicable man, has his angles and quirks; no cardboard villain, he. In that way, he receives his due, even as the perpetrator of great evil.

To write a good novel about a victim is harder than it looks. (Writing any good novel is harder than it looks, but that’s another story.) Self-pity would undermine the narrative and warp the reader’s connection to Wash, while earnestness, the flip side of that coin, would demean this tale. Not here. Wash hates his enemies with a razor fierceness, no righteousness, bravado, or breast-beating allowed, just earned hostility. Whatever self-pity creeps in momentarily overtakes him in a different context — love, which is only natural and quite real. Everyone in love acts entitled once in a while, at least.

Also important, Wash never stops striving and loving, no matter what blows he takes. Suffering by itself holds only a tenuous connection for readers; but caring for someone else despite suffering always wins. If Wash becomes remarkably adept at certain pursuits, perhaps stretching credulity, his path remains difficult, often perilous, his adventures allowing for (if not demanding) a character somewhat larger than life.

Throughout, he’s a spectacular observer, the prose being another pleasure of the book, as with his first look at Bridge Town, the capital of Barbados:

Swells of dust boiled up off the roads. Horses trotted past, heads low in the heat, flies swarming. We clattered past a sailor on a street corner blowing through some bizarre knot of pipes, while beside him a second danced along to his own fiddle, his fingers flying like shadows over the strings. We stopped in the sudden traffic; through the carriage oozed the stink of overripe fruit carted in from the port, and of immense slabs of tuna starting to turn in the heat. At a passing market stall I glimpsed their fishy eyes, fissured with blood as they gawked on beds of cool leaves.

Sometimes, in the early going when Wash is still a young boy, the voice slips — the narrative makes observations seemingly too knowledgeable for a lad, even one looking back from later years. But that’s a minor blemish on a superb novel, and I highly recommend Washington Black.

Disclaimer: I bought my reading copy of this book from bookshop.org, an online retailer that shares its receipts with independent bookstores.