Sunday, 24 February 2019

Washington Black - Esi Edugyan

“The world is large, larger than we sometimes allow it to be. “ Thus says Tanna Goff towards the end of Washington Black. And yet given the time frame in which the novel is set Washington Black has made the world, physically, a smaller place. For this book sees him journey from Barbados to Virginia to the Arctic to Nova Scotia to England, Amsterdam and Morocco. Quite a feat for an erstwhile slave boy from a sugar plantation. And yet you sense that this journey is more than mere physical travelling. It is the journey of a soul learning of life, of people, mostly himself, and exploring the very nature of what it is to be free. 

When you think of a slave you invariably think about freedom, a central theme in the book and one that seems to be occupying a number of writers in these contemporary times of ours. I think of Elizabeth Lowry, I think of Ben Okri. This story explores freedom beyond the physical ideas of freedom in terms of slave ownership but also of artistic, scientific, creative and emotional freedoms. It beggars the question, are any of us really free?

“Freedom, Wash, is a word with different meanings to different people, “ a truism spoken by Christopher Wilde, Washington’s first ‘mentor’ , who sees more in the little boy than his cruel plantation running brother, Erasmus. Christopher, ‘Titch’ Wilde is an enigma, a paradox who seems to grasp the very essence of things one moment and loses them the next.
“Children know everything about beauty,” Titch countered softly. “It is adults who have forgotten. “

And Washington is a beautiful soul exposed too young to the cruelty of life and learning at a young age that survival is a 24/7 process. You think, as you begin to read, that this is going to be another tale of slavery and freedom in the style perhaps of Roots and 12 Years a Slave but like Roots the journey takes us beyond slavery and further than we could possibly have imagined. There’s adventure, there’s horror, it’s part fugitive story, part survivor story. It’s multi stranded with all the strands cemented together with Edugyan’s flowing prose and detailed characterisations. What better way to make your points than through an adventure story. Shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2018 Ms. Edugyan ably demonstrates the art of the story teller to entertain and enlighten. 

I also believe it to be one of those books for whom everyone will take something different from it and different aspects will resonate for some time after you’ve finished it. Something that struck me whilst reading of Wash’s artistic ability was how much in the way of skills and talents are lost to people enslaved in whatever capacity. And only when fate or chance intervenes do these talents come to light.

I found the ending a little ambiguous as if Wash’s realisation that Titch was as much a slave as he was, sufficed . The story could end. And I guess it could and it did!! But you’re left thinking and wondering. Testament to the writer’s skill I guess that you come to care so much about these characters and you want to know what happens to them, You want to know that they going to be okay. But in a story such as this, the reader’s own imagination is called into play.

My thanks to Nudge Books for a copy of this fine story.

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