Another brilliant novel from Esi Edugyan proves she's one of our best writers of historical fiction
What does an 11-year-old slave have to live for? For George Washington “Wash” Black, it seems, not much. His maternal figure, Big Kit, explains in the opening chapters of Esi Edugyan’s eponymous new novel that she’ll have to kill them both for their one chance at freedom. In the next life, she assures, he’ll wake up in her African birthplace of Dahomey, far from the Barbados plantation where they’re merely living to die. “What is it like Kit, free?” he asks. She responds: “Oh, child, it is like nothing in this world. When you free, you can do anything.”
Shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, Washington Black depicts slavery — unsparingly — but it’s about freedom. Wash doesn’t die young; rather, he gains autonomy in his life, escaping Barbados and its stench of blood and loss to become an artist. Yet no matter where the novel takes him — a hot-air balloon or the high seas, Virginia or the frozen Arctic — there’s always a bounty on his head. What Kit tells a young Wash resounds throughout, less for its truth than its tragically unfulfilled promise.
Washington Black is a classic Bildungsroman in many ways, albeit one that subverts or transcends the genre’s tropes at critical junctures. This character portrait builds on slave narratives (12 Years a Slave) and novels (Beloved, and more recently Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad) that have explored the limits of freedom. Wash is spared the fate of those he grew up with; his talent, nurtured by a white scientist and abolition advocate who goes by Titch, sends him across the globe. His journey is mythic in scope, strange and unpredictable, and Washington Black derives its thematic and emotional force from these riveting, swashbuckling adventures.
Esi Edugyan pares the aftermath of slavery down to one man’s lifelong interior monologue — rooted in trauma, layered in shame. Few authors wed the past to the present with more urgency; she’s one of our sharpest and deepest writers of historical fiction. Her previous novel, Half-Blood Blues (also shortlisted for the Booker), followed a black musician’s life in a concentration camp, emerging as a similarly rigorous, lyrical take on race and history. In Washington Black, Edugyan writes within the constraints of her time period aptly. The novel’s towering achievement rests in its simultaneous realism and imagination. Wash’s candid narration grounds the story; the path Edugyan lays out for him seems boundless.
Edugyan renders true horrors with bleak banality: the decapitation of a man who’d already killed himself, the forced impregnation of an 11-year-old girl. Wash witnesses each firsthand, and they haunt him everywhere he goes. He tastes an optimistic future when brought to a mountain peak nearby, where he sees everything — his old world of “jewel-like fields” — for the first time. But it’s soured by his past: “I was troubled by the beauty of that place…littered as I knew [it] to be with broken teeth.” He hears the “ghostly cry” of a baby. He mourns for suffering women like Kit.
From there, a death occurs, and from there, an escape that spans continents. Wash and Titch make it to Canada, where they encounter the latter’s father. The pair is separated, eventually, but Wash still presses forward, first to London where he falls in love, and hones his craft and intelligence. The more extraordinary his life becomes, the more Edugyan brings out his complexity — a duality which showcases the author’s gift for emotional precision. She conjures an entire planet as a space to mull over identity formation, how one man grapples with the aftermath of surviving that “peculiar institution.” In observing how the pain lingers, how the psychological toll of enslavement endures, Edugyan fashions an epic of relatively intimate proportions.
Titch is no white savior here; the limits of his dynamic with Wash are increasingly drawn with crucial specificity, a friendship tormented by the different worlds from which they come, yet which they cannot abandon. While Wash has the opportunity to thrive scientifically and artistically — imbuing the novel with a hauntingly hopeful backdrop of discovery — he’s still held back from his full potential. He muses later in Washington Black, “We had been estranged from the potential of our own bodies, from the revelation of everything our…minds could accomplish.” Edugyan’s prose is elegant, nuanced, but her fury at this fact — the passions lost over centuries of agony — powers through like a godly storm. She confronts slavery’s legacy with acuity, depth, and staggering grief. A-