Magazine article The Spectator

'Washington Black', by Esi Edugyan - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Washington Black', by Esi Edugyan - Review

Article excerpt

It's 1830, and among the sugar cane of Faith Plantation in Barbados, suicide seems like the only way out. Decapitations and burnings are performed with languorous cruelty. Women give birth and are sent straight back to work after lying their 'tender-skinned newborns down in the furrows to wail against the hot sun'. Esi Edugyan's third novel does not retreat to softer ground after her last, Half-Blood Blues, dealt with Nazi ideology. Both Germany and Barbados have chapters in their histories when humans were treated like mere creatures.

Hope arrives with the plantation master's brother, Christopher 'Titch' Wilde, a scientist, inventor and abolitionist. Titch chooses a slave boy, George Washington Black, to be his apprentice. Wash, as we come to know him, may be a 'brute born for hard toil', but he is singularly sensitive. The youth has a gift for observation, whether sketching the tentacles of a jellyfish or witnessing a mutilated corpse with its 'explosion of teeth and bone, like bloated rice on the blood-slicked grass'. As Titch schools Wash in the ways of science, art and literature, affection and respect bloom between them.

The 'Cloud-cutter', Titch's aerodynamic contraption, is finally ready for the pair to make their escape. But like a marginally more fortunate Daedalus and Icarus, they don't stay airborne for long. A picaresque adventure ensues on storm-washed ships to Arctic igloos, through London squalor, to the desert hinterlands of Morocco. …

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