Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, “Washington Black” is an engrossing hybrid of 19th-century adventure and contemporary subtlety, a rip-roaring tale of peril imbued with our most persistent strife.
The story comes to us as a memoir written by a former slave named George Washington Black, an ironic appellation that pricks at the festering wound in American mythology. When we first meet Wash — as he’s known — he’s about 11 years old, working on the Faith Plantation in Barbados. His master is shockingly cruel, even by the standards of Caribbean slavery. But when the master’s brother visits from England, Wash meets a white man who seems created from some wholly alien material.
This strange visitor is named Titch, and he will become the central figure of Wash’s life and the enduring mystery of Edugyan’s novel. Freed from the daily responsibility and, he imagines, the moral culpability of running the family business, Titch has devoted himself to science. His latest project is a lighter-than-air contraption he calls “a Cloud-cutter,” and, fortuitously, Wash is exactly the right weight to provide additional ballast to test the balloon’s viability. A partnership, of sorts, is born.
Wash’s wide-eyed adolescence gives way to hard-won wisdom to produce a narrative voice that’s tinged with equal parts wonder and sorrow. In the early weeks of his apprenticeship, he’s baffled by his new master’s kindness. “What an odd man this was,” Wash says. “He smiled, and the strangeness of that smile, its lack of malice, left me confused.” He braces himself for some flash of violence or sexual abuse, but Titch remains solicitous and encouraging. He even praises the boy’s artistic talent and introduces him to the study of nature.
But this is the early 19th century in one of the most brutal regions of the world: No matter how high Wash and Titch float, their relationship remains freighted with complications that they might ignore but can’t possibly escape. And it’s those brittle tensions between the privileged and the powerless that Edugyan explores so elegantly in “Washington Black.”
When a crisis strikes Titch’s family, Wash finds himself caught in an ugly conflict between the brothers who control his fate. Titch uses the Cloud-cutter to steal Wash away from the plantation, and the novel, too, takes flight — first toward “the great, impossible America” and then around the world, to places a black boy from Barbados could not have imagined, from the “great, echoing domes of snow” in the Arctic to the baked streets of Morocco. Pursued by a relentless slave-catcher, Wash and his protector grow together as friends and outlaws. But Wash never loses sight of the fact that he is free only so long as he remains bound to Titch, while Titch retains the option of casting off this hazard at any time.
What really motivates this curious white man — affection, obligation, contrition? For Titch, is Wash simply “something to be used to further his own crusade, his own sense of goodness”? Edugyan won’t tolerate any easy answers to that conundrum as she draws us into the murky crosscurrents of racism, empathy, liberal guilt and self-righteousness. Fleeing around the world, Wash catches chilling indications of how conflicted Titch is. The institution that shattered Wash’s life has fractured Titch’s mind, too. “Washington Black” doesn’t suggest that slave and master suffer equally, of course, but it raises provocative questions about the way privilege poisons even those who benefit from it.
There’s a touch of Colson Whitehead’s “Underground Railroad” here, both in the story’s propulsive movement and its touches of surrealism. But in “Washington Black,” the wonders are not so much fantastical and ahistorical as technological and natural. Titch introduces Wash to a whole spectrum of discoveries and inventions that are transforming human knowledge and commerce, from early forms of scuba diving to miraculous ways of recording images. “I had seen enough strangeness,” the boy says, “to understand the world was unfathomable.”
But most marvelous of all are the marine creatures that capture his imagination and his artistic eye. What is more unearthly than the bodies of jellyfish “in a furnace of colour” or the mercurial limbs of the octopus? As a brilliant black man in a ferocious white culture, Wash comes to see himself as one of these exotic marine animals, thriving only in the most precarious conditions, wondering if he could create a refuge for them or himself.
“There could be no belonging for a creature such as myself, anywhere,” Wash says, “a
black boy with a scientific turn of mind and a talent on canvas, running, always running, from the dimmest of shadows.” But that’s hardly the final word in this thoughtful and terrifically exciting adventure. Discover what the rest of the world already knows: Edugyan is a magical writer.
On Sept. 20 at 7 p.m., Esi Edugyan will be at Politics and Prose at Union Market, 1270 5th St. NE, Washington, DC 20002.