Washington Black - Esi Edugyan

September 28, 2018

4/5 Stars


An imaginative, thoughtful book about slavery, freedom and friendship


Shortlisted for the Booker prize ‘Washington Black’ tells the story of an 11-year-old slave named George Washington Black.


His life is irrevocably changed after he becomes a manservant for Titch, the brother of the brutal plantation owner, Erasmus Wilde.


Upon discovering Wash’s interest in science and talent for art, he takes the boy under his wing. But after a dramatic death in the Wilde family, Wash has a bounty put on his head. He and Titch escape in a hot-air balloon and embark on an adventure around the globe.


I was instantly relieved to find a ‘traditional read’ with a linear time line, and not the recent trend for multiple character perspectives and multiple time lines. I found it refreshing that a tale was told, with no additional devices apart from a good plot, interesting subject matter and great characterization.


This book is not just a book about the horrors of slavery, it’s mostly about freedom. The start of the book based on the plantation is extremely powerful and shows the horror of slavery in brutal detail. Nothing new here, this has been explored before but it’s still powerful. However, this is not where the author wants to take us. It’s Washington’s freedom she wishes to explore.


Being told in the first person helps to round the character of Wash and build empathy. Edugyan writes in such a way that you feel you are with Wash throughout the tale, a tale which takes a slave boy from Barbados to Nova Scotia, to the Arctic, to the streets of Amsterdam and London, and the deserts of Morocco. Wash is a great character, intelligent, sensitive and determined, it’s impressive how he remains human, despite the horrors inflicted upon him (even by the ones he loves). There are many characters he meets on his journey that are brought to life and become memorable. From the brutal plantation owner, Erasmus Wilde, to the mysterious and malevolent bounty hunter Willard (tasked with finding Wash, dead or alive). We also meet Wash’s love, the strong, feisty and intelligent ‘Tanna’. It’s a shame that some of these characters were underused, especially ‘Big Kit’ Wash’s guardian, but it was evident the author wants to tell a different story. It would have been good to see the character of Titch developed more fully too.


It is a massively ambitious novel and leaves the plantation, where the book is most compelling, into Titch’s meandering tour of a richly imagined and exotic world, to find out why he was rejected by Titch. The author brings the locations alive and the pages are full of wonder. There is an authenticity to the writing and this is backed up with the writer’s obvious research into marine biology.


I found this an easy read, it’s not a rip roaring adventure, but there is no pretension, it’s well plotted, easy to follow, and a great read. This is a powerful novel about a boy forced into adulthood, as the reader takes a journey with Wash exploring the world and examining ‘what is freedom if you have never been free?’.

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