Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
Washington Black is book, and a hero, that can’t be easily categorised. Wash, as he is known to his friends, is born into slavery in Barbados, and we open with scenes of horrific brutality on the sugar plantation where he works in the fields. These are shocking depictions of the barbaric realities of life as a slave.
When the plantation owner’s eccentric brother Titch arrives, complete with large pieces of mysterious scientific equipment, he requires a helper of the correct weight to act as ballast for his, at this point unknown, experiments. So Wash, by virtue of being the right size and shape, is recruited by Titch and moves into a new, relatively luxurious situation.
It is here that things take a turn for the Jules Verne or Robert Louis Stevenson. Whilst remaining rooted in the realities of racism and inequality, our story takes flight from Corvus
Peak in the form of a cloud-cutter, the variation on a hot-air balloon that Titch has built.
We’re up, up and away into the realm of epic adventure.
Edugyan is stunningly good with characterisation. Wash is so fully realised that, even where the story becomes fantastic, we eat, sleep, breathe and fly through it all with him.
Her leap off the page characters are ten a penny; she can throw superb creations away after a couple of chapters. When we meet the grizzly, weather-beaten twins Benedikt and Theo Kinast, surgeon and captain on the ship which Wash, Titch and the ill-fated cloud-cutter crash land, it is one of those snuggle down, we’re in the hands of a master here, moments.
And then, about five minutes later, we’ve waving them goodbye and moving on to more adventures.
There are twin quests at the heart of the book: both stories about searching for a father.
Twice, we follow men consumed by the need to track down a paternal figure, although neither really seems to knows why.
Parentage is problematic throughout Washington Black; mothers and fathers are unreliable and slippery, but in a myriad of different ways. There is a sense that, if only we could just get over all these troublesome progenitors, we could each forge our own path through the world based on our unique passions and talents.
But it’s not that simple, of course. Escaping from your parentage can be as difficult as escaping, in any real sense, from slavery.
I love this book for the superb characterisation and the fact that Edugyan has put the swashbuckling adventure story onto the Booker Prize shortlist.