One thing that many adult readers find when we encounter modern literature is how seldom it gives us the momentum and sense of wonder we found in books when we were children. Where are the vivid characters, the adventures, the twists of fate and the infectious vitality that once infused reading with pleasure? Too often, we accept that their loss is a precondition of maturity, and a necessary sacrifice if we are to appreciate subtlety and sophistication instead.
Esi Edugyan’s third novel, Washington Black, is therefore a rare creation. It is a work of unmistakable literary sensibility, written in prose that is fresh and beautiful, yet it retains a storyteller’s skill to shock and surprise. If you can imagine a mashup between the film Twelve Years a Slave and Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, you can see why Washington Black is a novel that both deserves its place on the Man Booker longlist and a wide readership, too.
Its eponymous hero, George Washington (or “Wash”) Black, begins his story as a little slave boy on the Faith cotton plantation in 19th-century Barbados. An orphan, he has been taken under the wing of Big Kit, a powerful woman who tells him that death will return them to Dahomey in West Africa, and to freedom. He looks forward to this, as a relief from an existence of unending fear and pain. (The 11-year-old girl he loves, Emilie, is already pregnant by the cruel master of the house.)
But then his master’s kindlier, scientist brother, “Titch”, discovers Wash’s prodigious talent as a draughtsman in the construction of a flying machine called the Cloudcutter. Titch’s experiments give our narrator a “scarred visage” that makes him doubly outcast, even to other black people. Once Wash has witnessed the suicide of Titch’s gluttonous cousin, Mister Philip, both men go on the run together: Wash to flee punishment; Titch to postpone the moment when he must stop experimenting and try to make a profit.
The novel takes off, like our hero, into the stormy skies and “the boundlessness of the world” and heads for the Far North – that place that so often acts as a magnetic pole for children’s literature – in quest of Titch’s father Mister Wilde, a scientist who is said to be dead, but might not be. With its powerful descriptions of icy wastes, loneliness and “cold that wrapped itself around one like an unwelcome skin and began, ever so delicately, to squeeze”, there are many echoes of Frankenstein, as well as Philip Pullman in this, the strongest part of the narrative.
A Fellow of the Royal Society, Mister Wilde was a hero to Titch, who idolised him as a man of learning. Titch himself is part of a group of abolitionists who see “Negroes” as “God’s creatures”, and slavery as a moral stain. But, as in all the best stories, what Wash comes to perceive about Titch’s father is altogether more complex and compromised than the ideal.
Hunted by a slave-catcher from continent to continent, Wash carries internal scars that are as painful to him as those on his face. Even when slavery is abolished halfway through his wanderings, his sense of himself as “a disfigured black boy with a scientific turn of mind and a talent on canvas, running, always running, from the dimmest of shadows” is in conflict with his hunger for freedom.
Unexpectedly aided by other men and the forthright, mixed-race, young woman he falls in love with, he survives extremes of temperature, the elements, and above all, man’s cruelty to man as he journeys from Barbados to Nova Scotia to London, Amsterdam and Morocco. Wash has, he admits, “a ring of luck at my neck. Luck is its own kind of manacle, perhaps.” The question is whether his untutored talent at drawing and painting, which is initially as “innate and eerie” as that of Philip Pullman’s Lyra’s at the alethiometer, can be re-learnt and even offer him a future, in a century full of tyranny and prejudice, as “a man in full”.
As in her Booker and Orange Prize shortlisted Half-Blood Blues, Edugyan is intensely interested in how we become who we are. Half-Blood Blues, about a jazz musician in Nazi Germany, was also about racism and so steeped in the author’s love of jazz that you could almost hear the music she described as well as the bickering musicians playing it. Washington Black, for all its pace and ebullience, feels sadder, more scarred.
Edugyan is strongest when her topography is at its most particular, and she is dealing with the push-pull of the conflict between genius and oppression. Elsewhere, her novel is so packed with incident that it comes perilously close to veering into the episodic, and her prose is at times over-written and verging on the naive.
Yet you are carried through by the sense that this is a story that needs to be told. We know from the start that Wash will be a “freedman” by 18, and this is more than the promise of a happy ending by which to lure readers past the instinctive recoil against a stomach-churning catalogue of the miseries of slavery. Washington Black is essentially a debate about genius and freedom, more concerned with the awakening of black consciousness and confidence than with lambasting white conscience. Wash is alert to “all wonder, all curiosity”, and his perceptions of everything from a storm opening like an eye in the sky to the balls of white cotton on the docks looking like “dead eyes” continually remind us to open our own, as human beings.
“Children know everything about beauty It is adults who have forgotten,” Titch tells his grizzled, cynical father, and it is in reminding us of the electric, eclectic joys of reading we discovered as children that Edugyan has shown herself to be an important voice, and one that promises to become even more so.