Esi Edugyan has long explored the concept of living between worlds, an identity both exhausting and destabilizing. In her 2004 debut novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, Ghanaian civil servant Samuel learns that he’s inherited the estate of his late uncle in Amber Valley, Alberta, a settlement formed by African-American homesteaders from the US in the early 20th century. Her second novel, the highly acclaimed Half-Blood Blues, focuses on the disappearance of Hiero, a brilliant young black German jazz musician, and the brutal persecution that took the lives of so many Jewish and ethnic minority people in Nazi Germany.
In Washington Black, Edugyan truly hits her stride, creating a character, the eponymous George Washington Black, who interrogates the identity of one caught between worlds. “Wash” first appears in the novel as a young slave boy on Faith Plantation in 19th-century Barbados. Protected by the mercurial Big Kit, Wash grows up deeply observant out of necessity. As a young boy he recognizes that “[a] man who has belonged to another learns very early to observe a master’s eyes,” a watchful trait that stands him in good stead. Plucked from the plantation fields to become the apprentice of the owner’s younger son, Titch, Wash finds himself caught up in the mad dreaming behind the construction of Titch’s balloon, the Cloud-cutter.
As the novel becomes increasingly fabulous, reminiscent in many ways of Jules Verne’s 19th-century adventure novels—an escape from Barbados by balloon, travels to the Arctic to find Titch’s father (believed dead), and travels south to Canada—we can see Edugyan reframing the oft-told narrative of those caught between worlds. Wash struggles to find places of belonging when, time after time, his state as escaped slave, then as freed man, complicates his choices. Ultimately, however, it’s his innate ability to deeply perceive—and artistically record—the world around him that becomes a place of belonging, of identity, for him. Although he may be forced into myriad choices, his ability to see the world for what it is allows Wash to find self and connect to like-minded others.
Though he is free, an artist and scientist in his own right, and slavery has now been abolished, Wash is threatened by a ghost from his past—a bounty hunter sent by those who once owned him in Barbados. No matter what freedom he might seek for himself, he’s tracked around the world by this wraith of a figure. Here we see Edugyan exploring one of the most deeply resonant concepts of the novel: the double-edged gift and fear of freedom. Offering a rich story of identity and forgiveness, Washington Black is a complex, intelligent and beautifully written book.
—Jenna Butler is the author of Magnetic North (UAP, 2018).