Book Review

By Adam Norris

Local writer and goat wrangler, Adam Norris spends his days haunting second hand book shops and trawling online hat stores for that perfect fedora

Washington Black
Esi edugyan
Knopf Publishers – 2018

In a perfect world – that old chestnut – we would be beyond timely reminders of the savagery of slavery. Throughout the waking world it is a practice that somehow endures, and so journeys into colonialism’s macabre heart are no illustrative reminders of our capacity for heartless exploitation and eugenics; are no tales of horror at a history long left behind. Instead these stories act as mirrors to civilisation at large, and if Washington Black teaches us anything – other than how to spin a grand story – it is that the scars of slavery and racism are a more complicated and everyday reality for each of us, whether we are conscious of this or not.

In the early 19th Century, George Washington Black is born on a plantation in Barbados, a child of parents he does not know, witness and victim to the casual ferocity of slave life. While life working the fields presents its own dangers, it is his glancing interactions with the world of his English owner, Erasmus Wilde, that capture not only the physical but psychological divide between them. “We get to lick the plates,” Washington remarks in wonder once the Master’s meal is done.

After forging a friendship with Erasmus’ aeronaut brother Titch, the pair escape the island and begin a saga that sees them sojourn from the US to the Arctic tundra, from Denmark to remote Moroccan sands. It is a friendship built on an impossible disparity in power across the two men’s lives, with a cast of characters who linger long beyond the page.

Esi Edugyan has crafted a remarkable bildungsroman balanced between torment and emancipation – emancipation of self, of soul, and perceptions of skin. It is an adventure story of rare strength and sincerity, and if her conclusion may leave certain strands unfinished, such is freedom; it can follow its fortunes without our demands for closure.