Looking at that cover, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Washington Black was a sort of steampunk adventure, perhaps a kind of abolitionist The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It’s not, though; apart from the dubious legitimacy of the flying machine on which Washington Black effects his escape from plantation slavery in Barbados (and, to be honest with you, it’s hardly a deus ex machina given that it promptly crashes mid-storm), everything about Esi Edugyan’s second novel is straight historical fiction. What’s remarkable about it is the sense of constant slight peculiarity that pervades the novel’s atmosphere: this is the nineteenth century and the slave trade and the racism that we know, but there’s more to see, more to experience, than hackneyed literary tropes. Like Washington, anyone reading this book must prepare to be surprised, not just once but repeatedly: by the way people can be so simple and yet so complicated; by the curious twists of fate.
Washington is lifted (quite literally) out of his life as a Barbadian slave by the brother of his sadistic master. Christopher, or Titch, as he insists that Wash call him, is a gentleman but also an amateur naturalist. An amateur does things for love. The pain and the irony of Titch’s and Wash’s relationship is that Titch, though intelligent and far more humane than his vile brother, still sees Wash as a tool or a means to an end. That Wash happens to have artistic skills, and a scientific mind, does not make him less of an object; he’s just an object that Titch respects. Wash is young, though, and because he’s been removed from the rough love of Big Kit, the slave woman who raised him, he is desperate for something to fill that empty place of affection. When the two of them are separated, in an Arctic snowstorm (long story; there’s a lot of travelling), it’s the idea that Titch has abandoned him that haunts Wash for decades. Much of the rest of the story involves his attempts to find his former master, and his struggles to find a place in the world, while remaining permanently haunted by a particular episode of violence just before he left the plantation and by the reward his former master placed on his head.
Love comes in the form of Tanna Goff, a mixed-race young woman whose father is an eminent marine naturalist. Wash becomes Goff’s artist and assistant in an attempt to get to know Tanna better. The complex implications of everyone’s racial identity in this household are left unspoken but profoundly acknowledged. There’s an ambiguity to Wash and Tanna’s relationship, too: she’s strong and clever and loving, and he loves her, but can they ever be enough for one another?
That Edugyan packs all of this in to a novel that is also an adventure story is testimony to how carefully she picks and chooses what to depict. An encounter with an octopus that takes a shine to Wash isn’t just a natural history caper; it’s another instance of the interplay between affection and power. Titch’s determination to construct his flying machine comes – despite his progressive thoughts – at the expense of his brother’s slaves, who are diverted from their regular labour to carry materials at his whim. There’s always a sense that there are two levels to the book: the signifiers, if you will (plot events, character actions), and the signified (what those events and actions reveal, or represent). Edugyan avoids heavy-handedness by having an inherently interesting story and by creating Washington Black himself, a boy it’s impossible not to feel for. It’s an excellent piece of work.