Wednesday 21 November 2018

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:
George Washington Black – known as Wash – is born into slavery on a Barbados sugar plantation – a brutal life which only gets worse when the owner dies and the property is inherited by his nephew. Erasmus considers his slaves sub-human, controllable only with violence and cruelty. But the arrival of Erasmus’s brother, Christopher (or Titch) brings another change in circumstances for Wash.

Titch is a scientist and an abolitionist. He picks Wash to be his assistant because he is small and appears quick witted, and treats him with kindness – but nothing can change the fact that Wash lives or dies on the word of his white masters.

“And that, it seemed to me clearly, was the more obvious anguish – that life had never belonged to any f us, even when we sought to reclaim it by ending it. We had been estranged from the potential of our own bodies, from the revelation of everything our bodies and minds could accomplish.”
Wash’s life follows an extraordinary trajectory that will take him from Barbados to the Arctic, to the shores of the Canadian Maritimes, to London and finally to the deserts of North Africa. He will outlive slavery and play a key part in creating London Zoo’s first Aquarium. We will get some fascinating glimpses into the work of 19th Century scientists and naturalists.

Yet the terrible physical injuries Wash will sustain along the way – both accidental and deliberate - become a metaphor for the injuries that racism and white supremacy continue to inflict on black bodies. And Titch in the end stands for the eternal white liberal dilemma – the necessity to recognise one’s own privilege and the damage that it does even when you act with the best of intentions:

“He was a man who’d done far more than most to end the sufferings of a people whose toil was the very source of his power; he had risked his own good comfort, the love of his family, his name. ... His harm, I thought, was in now understanding that he still had the ability to cause it.”

A book that is at once a tale of adventure, a fascinating exploration of pioneering Victorian scientists, and an allegory of Black experience pre- and post-emancipation.

Washington Black was shortlisted for the 2018 Man BookerPrize and is the winner of the 2018 Giller prize (the second time Edugyan has won Canada's highest literary award).

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Long Song by Andrea Levy, The English Passengers by Matthew Kneale, Black and British by David Olusogo, Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

Avoid If You Dislike: Novels written in quasi-Victorian voice.

Perfect Accompaniment: A visit to the Aquarium at London Zoo

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

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