George Washington “Wash” Black had spent all of his twelve years as a field slave on a plantation in Barbados when he and friend/protector Big Kit were suddenly summoned to the master’s house to serve at table. After the tense dinner at which the master quarreled with his brother Christopher and broke Big Kit’s nose with a plate, the main house slave tells Wash he’s to stay behind and tend Christopher in his room. Big Kit tries in vain to argue Wash’s way out of the demand, but before he goes, she gives him a large nail and tells him to drive it through the man’s eye if he tries anything.
So begins Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black, one of the best-reviewed novels of 2018, shortlisted for the Booker Prize and winner of the Giller Prize. It’s been on my wishlist since appearing on the Booker longlist last summer, and I finally found it in paperback a few weeks ago.
Christopher, who goes by “Titch”, fortunately has no such dark designs on Wash. Instead, having observed Wash, Titch believes him capable of learning the necessary skills in writing and math to assist in Titch’s scientific activities. And he’s right: Wash learns quickly and takes to his studies and the work, and he becomes indispensable to Titch, whose greatest ambition is to build an air machine of his own design to fly across the Atlantic back to England.
When Wash finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, Titch decides to escape in the air machine just as a storm is brewing. They leave the island only to go down in the sea, luckily crashing into a ship at the last second. Titch convinces the captain to allow them to sail along to Virginia, where he plans to meet an acquaintance to help him continue north to the Arctic to find and bury his explorer father’s remains. While in Virginia, they learn that Titch’s brother has offered a huge reward for Wash’s return to the plantation, dead or alive, and he’s sent a notorious slave hunter to track them down. Titch urges Wash to go into hiding and escape into Canada, but Wash insists on staying with Titch as he sails north to the icy spring waters of Hudson Bay where Titch finally forces Wash to go his own way.
Edugyan builds a wonderful adventure here. It feels so fresh to have a young black protagonist in a literary action-adventure story, and Wash is perfect to narrate his own story. He conveys all of the wonder inherent in his discoveries of the world after a lifetime of pain and drudgery, while also reminding us of his constant fear that, at any moment, Titch could turn on him and take it all away. He shows how Titch and other white characters may think they have Wash’s interests at heart, but they’re really taking advantage of his status first as a slave and then as a young black man in a brutally racist world. There are some very strong echoes of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein not only in the questionable expedition to the Arctic but also in Titch having created a sort of “monster” by educating Wash and giving him hope but then abandoning him. By that point, Wash is curious and confident enough to continue his own education and exploration of the world around him.
This should have been a great book, and it was for the first half and then some. And then everything just slowly ground to a halt. The action slowed. The stakes were reduced. The storyline became episodic and choppy. All the tension was sucked out. I kept hoping that the fourth act would pick up again after the lull of the third, but it only continued the long drag to an oddly abrupt ending. The characters spent a lot of time describing and explaining instead of acting. It’s been something of a theme in many of my reads so far this year, where the excitement and expectation built in the first half or more is let down by a flat ending. I still feel positive overall (I’m rounding up from 3.5 stars), but that positivity is tempered by disappointment at what could have been one of my favorite books of the year.
(If nothing else, this book contributed to my evolving positive views on Frankenstein, which I’m appreciating more and more in the weeks since reading it.)