By Esi Edugyan, Alfred A. Knopf, 334 pages, $26.95
When the novel Washington Black opens, it is 1830 and the young George Washington Black, who narrates his own story, is a slave on a Barbados sugar plantation called Faith, protected, or at least watched over, by an older woman, Big Kit. As a new master takes charge, the fear is palpable. The accounts of murders and punishments and random cruelties are chilling and unsparing. Big Kit can see no way out except death: “Death was a door. I think that is what she wished me to understand. She did not fear it. She was of an ancient faith rooted in the high river lands of Africa, and in that faith the dead were reborn, whole, back in their homelands, to walk again free.”
The reader can almost see what is coming. Since Barbados was under British rule, slavery was abolished there in 1834. This, then, could be a novel about the last days of the cruelty, about what happens to a slave-owning family and to the slaves during the waning of the old dispensation.
The Canadian novelist Esi Edugyan has other ideas, however. She is determined that the fate of Washington Black will not be dictated by history, that the novel instead will give him permission to soar above his circumstances and live a life that has been shaped by his imagination, his intelligence and his rich sensibility. He is not a pawn in history so much as a great noticer in time, with astonishing skill at capturing the atmosphere in a room, matched by his talent with pencil and sketchbook. He is a born artist, and someone who attracts people to him. He is also a lost soul who moves through the novel as though in search of some distant, sorrowful notion of home.
In the opening section, Washington’s master, Erasmus Wilde, is visited by his brother, Christopher, who has plans to build and test a flying machine and sees Washington as a perfect piece of ballast for his experiment. Thus Washington moves from working in the fields to serving at table. Gradually, he becomes a kind of companion to Christopher, listening to his theories and accompanying him each day to the hill where the flying machine will be assembled. In one tryout of the machine, Washington’s face is badly burned.
When the Wilde brothers are joined by their cousin, an even more awkward and uneasy presence than Christopher, Washington gets to hear the desultory conversation among the three men and registers with precision their isolation, their estrangement from the world, their dislike for one another. He is ready to comment on them: “Something about that evening — the gleaming beauty of the master’s house, the refinements, the lazy elegance — made me feel a profound, unsettling sense of despair.” And on the character of the cousin: “Mister Philip was merely a man of his class, nothing more. His great passions were not passions but distractions; one day was but a bridge to the next. He took in the world with a mild dissatisfaction, for the world was of little consequence.”
Slowly, as they spend more time together, Christopher begins to see Washington in a new light, as someone who has unusual talents, who is deeply receptive, a sort of wunderkind. Christopher becomes intent on rescuing him from his brother’s plantation. Washington in turn begins to emerge even more strongly as more attention is paid to him.
In this portrait of the artist as a young man, Edugyan demands that the reader take the mixtures in Washington seriously, as the young narrator plays, like Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, with the possibilities of silence, exile and cunning.
Edugyan is willing to take great risks to release the reader from any easy or predictable interpretations of Washington. She is not afraid to allow him to have thoughts and knowledge that seem oddly beyond his command. That is part of his ambiguous power in the book, the idea that, owing to his unusual quickness and subtlety of mind, Washington can be trusted to know more than he should. His place in this changing, dangerous world is not fixed. Social realism will not help him on his picaresque journey.
The novel has many elements of a 19th-century adventure story. Washington, when he needs to, makes his tale both gripping and credible. He writes as though the idea of escaping from the plantation by flying machine (as he and Christopher do), landing on a ship that rescues them (as they also do) and making their way to Canada, where they find Christopher’s father, whom they had believed dead (as they do as well), is somehow part of how the world works.
There are moments when the writing soars, when Washington’s experience of the natural world is rendered in a prose that openly, almost exultantly, strives to evoke beauty, such as when he goes diving: “How luminous the world was, in the shallows. I could see all the golden light of the dying morning, I could see the debris in it stirring, coming alive. Blue, purple, gold cilia turned in the watery yellow shafts of light slicing down. In the gilded blur I caught the flashing eyes of shrimp, alien and sinewy.”
Edugyan is careful, nonetheless, that her flying machine of a novel not fly too freely into the upper air. She manages this by confining Washington’s version of events, when necessary, to close and precise description. His mind works plausibly. His prose can be vivid, sometimes fervid, but it can also be measured. In Canada, he knows that, as an escaped slave, there is a price on his head. Despite the wonders he experiences, he never loses a foreboding that is rooted and fully real.
Just as Christopher, earlier in the book, was his enabler for escaping the plantation, in Canada Washington encounters Tanna Goff and her naturalist father, who become not only his protectors but open up the study of the natural world for him. As he was to Christopher, Washington becomes a sort of colleague and collaborator to them. Soon he is writing with ease about specimens, about carbonic acid, oxygen and photosynthesis.
Tentatively, a sort of romance begins between him and Tanna, a relationship that is handled with tenderness and reticence. With the Goffs, Washington makes his way to London, there to work on creating a new museum to display living creatures from the deep. No matter where he goes, he is both ready for the world and displaced. He is wounded by the loss of Big Kit and sets out now to refind Christopher Wilde, from whom he has become separated. He has won freedom but not from the experiences he has been through. The very quality and range of his awareness demand that the world should trouble him.
Several times in the novel, the idea of the characters having doubles, or secret sharers haunting their lives, is invoked. Washington’s complexity — his innocence and knowingness, his sense of wonder at the nature of things — also comes to us as a sort of disguise, a doubling, a performance, a way of handling his loneliness, suggesting many layers of self-creation to cover the fear and the cruelty evoked so memorably in the opening pages.
What Edugyan has done in Washington Black is to complicate the historical narrative by focusing on one unique and self-led figure. Washington Black’s presence in these pages is fierce and unsettling. His urge to live all he can is matched by his eloquence, his restless mind striving beyond its own confines in tones that are sometimes overstretched, if brilliant, and then filled with calm subtlety and nuance.
–New York Times News Service
Colm Toibin’s latest novel is House of Names.