Man Booker 2018 – Washington Black by Esi Edugyan #review

51HyEwlt4NL._SX307_BO1,204,203,200_Beginning on a slave plantation in 1830s Barbados, before embarking on a whirlwind adventure spanning the globe, Washington Black follows the life and travels of a young slave who has a talent for scientific observation. The eponymous hero is plucked from a life of brutality and fear to act as assistant to the liberal-thinking brother of his cruel master. What follows is a story of a world which is both forward-looking and still steeped in terrible inequalities. Washington Black, ‘Wash’, is a complex character, marked emotionally and physically by his experiences. He is failed by many of those around him, and there’s a terrible sense of isolation that follows Wash throughout much of his journeying.

Loneliness is not the only thing following Wash – he is being pursued by a slave hunter, adding a tangible tension to events. Without giving too much away, the role of the hunter and hunted is one that resurfaces in different guises throughout Edugyan’s novel, and is fascinatingly coupled with a focus on scientific pursuits in an age when wealth is still being openly generated by a system based on slavery. Washington later becomes involved in the collecting of marine specimens for study and public display – he recognises that the public will find living creatures more interesting to study, but does not make the link with his own early life. Like the marine creatures he rehouses in tanks, the adults of his childhood have also been brutally displaced from their home.

This is a novel of incredible cruelty and incredible warmth. There are very memorable characters here, be it Big Kit, the enslaved woman who looks after the young Wash as far as she is able, or the fascinating Titch, the man who first sees potential in Washington, even if it is only as ballast for his new flying machine. However, and perhaps this is down to the epic journey Washington undertakes, I found it sometimes flagging in terms of its energy. There’s no doubt it’s incredibly well-written, and the touches of the fantastical lift it beyond many historical novels dealing with this period, but I don’t think this is different enough in this year of longlisted novels which are challenging form and style.

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