Oh well, having set down my best intentions earlier, to review Washington Black before finishing Sally Rooney’s Normal People, and to complete the 30 Day Book Challenge by Christmas, I have failed on all accounts and now have Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls to review as well! But, I have had a lovely Chrsitmas and the little one is sat in a post-Christmas quiet time so it’s a chance to catch up a little.
Anyway, turning my thoughts back to Esi Edugyan, I must confess that I generally avoid books focused on slavery and the slave trade.
I’m not entirely sure why, if I’m honest. The slave trade is an appalling stain on humanity and pits people against the most appalling conditions and privations. Maybe it’s too appalling and too awful to want to face, too exhausting, but normally I relish exactly that challenge in reading; maybe it’s because I’ve read too many novels about the slave trade which felt too ‘worthy’ and too overt… Or maybe it’s just my own prejudices.
But anyway, as a result, I would probably not have picked up this novel, had it not been included in the Man Booker long- and shortlists this year.
Washington Black is an eleven-year-old field slave who knows no other life than the Barbados sugar plantation where he was born. When his master’s eccentric brother chooses him to be his manservant, Wash is terrified of the cruelties he is certain await him. But Christopher Wilde, or “Titch,” is a naturalist, explorer, scientist, inventor, and abolitionist. He initiates Wash into a world where a flying machine can carry a man across the sky; where two people, separated by an impossible divide, might begin to see each other as human; and where a boy born in chains can embrace a life of dignity and meaning. But when a man is killed and a bounty is placed on Wash’s head, Titch abandons everything to save him. What follows is their flight along the eastern coast of America, and, finally, to a remote outpost in the Arctic, where Wash, left on his own, must invent another new life, one which will propel him further across the globe. From the sultry cane fields of the Caribbean to the frozen Far North, Washington Black tells a story of friendship and betrayal, love and redemption, of a world destroyed and made whole again–and asks the question, what is true freedom?Goodreads
The novel is a Bildungsroman of the eponymous George Washington Black – known to his friendss as Wash – born to the brutal sugar cane fields of Faith Plantation in Barbados. The opening of the novel does not refrain from depicting the brutality of life on the plantation, as seen through the eyes of eleven year-old Washington
Then the maimings began. What use could we be, injured so? I saw men limp into the fields, blood streaming down their legs; I saw women with blood-soaked bandages over their ears. Edward had his tongue cut out for backtalk; Elizabeth was forced to eat from a full chamber pot for not cleaning the previous day’s thoroughly. James tried to run away, and to make an example of him, the master had an overseer burn him alive as we watched. Afterwards, in the embers of his pyre, an iron was heated and we filed past the charred horror of him, one by one, and were branded a second time.
James’s was the first of the new killings; other killings followed. Sick men were whipped to shreds or hanged above the fields or shot.
The novel, however, moves away from this brutality rapidly and away from being a novel about slavery at all. It is the novel of Washington Black and his relationships, initially with Big Kit whilst he was a field slave, later with Tanna Goff and her father. It is an adventure, a journey and perhaps above all an odyssey – and as I have just finished reading The Silence of the Girls, I am using that term deliberately! And over the whole novel, colouring and echoing every moment of Wash’s life is the relationship between Washington and Titch, the enigmatic Christopher Wilde – described with “a fine white scar cutting up from either corner of his mouth and across his cheeks to his ears, as if a thread had been set on his tongue and yanked upwards. It gave the impression of a crack” – who rescued Washington from the brutality of the fields and into the relative security of his scientific and engineering discoveries.
It is a book of identity and self-discovery, and the question of identity is thrown into stark relief by the fact of being born into slavery. How much of Washington was forged by his life as a slave, his identity – including and particularly symbolised perhaps in his name – imposed upon him by the whim and will of others? How much of Washington was forged by the expectations of society, by the pervasive racism even when out of slavery? How much of Washington was forged through the stories of Dahomey imbibed from Big Kit? How much of Washington was innate? How much of any of us is?
Washington did have a wonderfully eventful life: from the slave plantation, where he discovered an innate and precocious artistic skill, he was forced to flee with Titch in his aerostat dirigible “cloud cutter” into the ocean; met the sexton Edgar Farrow, an amateur anatomist and keeper of a slave underground escape route; pushed into the Arctic to uncover the truth of Titch’s father’s apparent death and witnessed what appeared to be Titch’s own death in the snow; fled to the relative safety – and for an friendless black man in the 1830s, safety must have been a relative experience – of Nova Scotia where he met Tanner Goff; and then he arrived in London, having devised the world’s first aquarium and helped design and create Ocean House, a “permanent exhibition of aquatic life”; and thence into Morocco on a quest to uncover the truth about Titch’s apparent death and resolve that relationship. All the while, since fleeing Faith Plantation, the spectre of John Willard, bounty hunter of runaway slaves, pursued him.
It was an incredible adventure – and I mean that in the most literal sense! Was it a pastiche, a heightened and literary representation of the gentleman-scholar’s life? There were echoes perhaps of Frankenstein within it: the trip to the Arctic in pursuit of Titch’s father felt like a parallel for Viktor’s flight to the Arctic in pursuit of his creation; Washington allowed his restlessness – and he was very restless – to come between himself and Tanna, perhaps as Viktor allowed his obsessions to come between him and Elisabeth, albeit with less grisly results; and both novels take an extreme situation to explore ideas of identity and value and freedom. Perhaps, however, I am dwelling too far on somewhat strained echoes! Blame the literature student who still dwells in my soul!
Edugyan’s writing is wonderful. The contrast between Wash’s dialogue and Washington’s narrative was beautiful, and the maturation of Wash as a character until that gap reduced to nothing was beautifully judged. And her descriptions at times were wonderful, especially of the natural world and the submarine natural world. Take a look for example at the octopus whose beauty inspired him to create Ocean House:
Then, in a series of hallucinations, the rock became a slick blue smudge, then a bumpy red crag of meat, then a mottled brown rag, then a vile red slash.
Again I went very slowly towards it, extending my arms in their thick hide. The creature shot up from its rock, its orange arms boiling all around it, the suckers very white. Its gaze seemed to churn up out of its soft mantle and burn through me, seeing, I suppose, the sad rigidity of a boy, the uselessness of his hard, inflexible bones. I stared at the bulb of its pendulous head, the crags that made it look ancient, and a hot, glorious feeling rushed through me, a bright, radiating hope.
I could see by the tentacles on the third arm that she was a female. She was wondrous and brilliantly vivid, and when I thought of Goff killing her to crate up as a specimen for his exhibition, a twist of nausea went through me. How wrong it all felt. Could she not, I thought, be brought to England alive, to be seen as the breathing miracle she was? Was that so impossible?…
The octopus arranged itself in a smatter of algae, its body hanging blackly before me. When I came forward to touch it, it sent out a surge of dark ink. We paused, watching each other, the grey rag of ink hanging between us. Then it shot off through the water, stopping short to radiate like a cloth set afire, its arms unfurling and vibrating. There was something playful in the pause, as if it expected me to ink it back. I held my hands out towards it, gently; the creature hovered in the dark waters, almost totally still. Then, shyly, it began to pulse towards me, stopping just inches away, its small, gelatinous eyes taking me in. Then it swam directly into my hands.
I’m not sure whether the fate of said octopus was actually made fully clear – the risk of not reviewing as quickly as I usually do! – but I have a feeling it was left hanging.
It was a book that I am hugely glad I read. And would probably have skipped over had it not been on the Man Booker list simply because of it’s setting and the focus on slavery in the blurb.
Plot / Pace: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail
Date: August 2018