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When considering the immeasurable evil of slavery it’s difficult to fully fathom the ramifications it had amongst so many individuals' lives. Not only were people’s freedom and lives brutally curtailed, controlled and cut short, but their talent and potential was also squandered. Esi Edugyan evocatively portrays the life of George Washington Black or “Wash”, a character with the aptitude to be a great artist and scientist were he not born into slavery on a Barbados plantation in 1818. But she grants him the potential to partially foster his talents when he comes under the apprenticeship of an eccentric scientist who is the brother of the plantation owner/overseer. What follows is a fantastically imaginative, heartrending and compulsively readable tale of his journey and growth into early adulthood. It’s a richly immersive story that also powerfully shows the perspective of slaves who feel “We had been estranged from the potential of our own bodies, from the revelation of everything our bodies and minds could accomplish.” This psychological state is complexly rendered as are the way characters surrounding Wash fail to fully empathize with him and understand the ramifications of slavery. “Washington Black” is an astounding novel.

Edugyan perceptively shows the way that the development of children are so atrociously twisted growing up in slavery, how relationships become perverted and emotionally disrupted. Not only does she portray this in her protagonist but it’s also poignantly rendered in the character of a slave girl who is seen only fleetingly, but Wash observes at one point that she has become pregnant and we’re left to horrifically wonder how this eleven year old’s pregnancy came about. The author also sympathetically shows the challenging emotional state of a boy going through adolescence where new feelings of stimulation are so often mixed with a sense of shame: “I would wake aroused against the sheets, feeling all at once thrillingly alive in my skin, and ashamed.” Wash encounters many challenges that prevent him from feeling pride in either his body or mind. His journey is both an inner struggle to fully foster and own his natural gifts as well as a physical quest to survive the confines of his restricted circumstances. Amidst the immediate action of Wash’s trials, there are intriguing mysteries in the background which gradually unfold over the course of the book.

 Detail from a 1657 map of Barbados, showing plantations and escaped slaves.

Detail from a 1657 map of Barbados, showing plantations and escaped slaves.

I also really appreciated the beautiful writing in this novel, particularly when Edugyan is portraying the natural world and Wash’s scientific study of it. Maybe I just have an affinity for scenes in stories that take place under water, but just like Egan’s “Manhattan Beach” there’s a stunning scene in this book when Wash dives underwater and discovers a liberating space. Edugyan writes “How luminous the world was, in the shallows. I could see all the golden light of the dying morning, I could see the debris in it stirring, coming alive. Blue, purple, gold cilia turned in the watery shafts of light slicing down. In the gilded blur I caught the flashing eyes of shrimp, alien and sinewy… all this I let drop away, so that I hung with my arms suspended at my sides, the soft current tugging at me. The cold sucked at me and the light weakened, and I was finally, mercifully, nothing.” It’s as if the only place Wash can be liberated from the constrictions of his identity is in this alien underwater world where he can never truly belong.

In its very title this book asks a powerful open-ended question about all the people in history who possessed innate talent and intelligence, but whose skin colour and status dictated whether they realized their potential or were forced to squander it. Even though it’s a historical novel it makes a powerful political statement naming its slave hero after the first US president. In this era after Obama’s presidency it seems horrifically regressive that the current president is someone who only achieved his position through money and an old-world sense of superiority. It feels like Edugyan is challenging us to consider under what terms we want to found our future: superficial details or real capability? There are so many impactful themes and ideas in “Washington Black”, but what makes the novel so gripping are the surprising twists the story takes that left me desperate to discover what will happen next.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesEsi Edugyan