Book Review: ‘Washington Black’ by Esi Edugyan

I am tired of mainstream slave narratives. At best, they play on the ‘black victim’ stereotype – reducing black people to mere objects in their own story, and at worst, they play on the ‘white saviour’ stereotype – underplaying the inhumanity of slave owners, while overstating the nobility of white abolitionists. ‘Washington Black’, however, is not a typical slave narrative, and the protagonist Washington Black has claimed a big piece of my heart.

‘Longlisted for the 2018 ManBooker Prize, ‘Wahsington Black’¬† follows the story of the protagonist George Washington Black from a plantation in Barbados, to a research camp in the Artic, to Europe, and finally to North Africa.

Esi Edugyan expertly weaved an intricate story that unfolds pages by page in front of us, revealing more and more information, surprising us with plot twists and turns that I at least never saw coming. The narrative is not predictable, it’s adventurous, exciting, heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time. Beneath a great story and a coming-of-age narrative lie various themes that recur throughout the story. One of those themes is ‘freedom’ and what it means to different people at different times. Throughout the book, Edugyan makes us question what freedom really means, she points out the responsibility that comes with being ‘free’, and does not shy away from openly showing us what people have had to do to become and remain ‘free’.

The horrors of Faith plantation in Barbados reminded me of Colson Whitehead’s ‘Underground Railroad’ and the movie ‘Twelve Years a Slave’. What makes ‘Washington Black’ special, however, is that the horrors of slavery are present but they are only viciously stabbing at the reader’s heart at the beginning, and often from the margins. Washington’s life is not just dominated by the brutality of enslavement, but also by the scientific discoveries and explorations of the 19th century.

Washington is privileged compared to the other slaves on the plantation, as the plantation owner’s brother Christopher Wilde takes him under his wing and makes him his assistant. In that regard, this book is not just a recollection of the brutalities of slavery, a coming-of-age-story of a bright young black man during the dark period, but it is also an homage to black scientists, black people who were unwitting assistants to great discoveries and inventions, and black victims who were mere pawns and experiments in the white man’s quest for scientific advancement.

From being chosen as mere ‘ballast’ for Christopher Wilde’s ‘cloud-cutter’ experiment, to becoming and artists and scientist in his own right, Washington Black breaks the mould and fights for agency over his own life and destiny. He narrates his story himself and ends his story in his way, too.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and could not put it down, I even wished it could have been 100 pages longer, in spite of the fact that the narrative already stretched over almost 400 pages.

This book is an example of masterful storytelling and embodies what, in my opinion, great fiction is made of: an engrossing story with an important underlying message, beautifully crafted prose, and fully fleshed out characters¬†whose marks will remain on the reader’s mind and heart, long after the last pages of the book are closed.

*This books was sent to me free of charge by Serpent’s Tail.