Man Booker Prize

Slave adventure filled with joy of scientific discovery

Washington Black (below) is the third novel by Esi Edugyan (above) and her second on the Man Booker Prize shortlist.
Washington Black is the third novel by Esi Edugyan (above) and her second on the Man Booker Prize shortlist.PHOTO: TAMARA POPPITT

Who: Canadian novelist Esi Edugyan, 40, makes the shortlist for the second time with her third novel. She was shortlisted in 2011 for her second novel Half-Blood Blues, about a mixed-race jazz musician in Hitler's Germany.

WASHINGTON BLACK

Serpent's Tail/ Paperback/419 pages/ $21.29/Books Kinokuniya

4/5

Gazing down from a height at the sugar plantation where he has known nothing but cruelty all his life, 11-year-old slave George Washington "Wash" Black is troubled by "the enormous beauty of that place, of the jewel-like fields below us, littered as I knew them to be with broken teeth".

Edugyan's third novel soars like a hot-air balloon, yet remains keenly attentive to the teeth on the ground, the horrors scattered in the furrows of history.

Wash's name evokes George Washington Carver, the black botanist who was born into slavery and went on to revolutionise American farming. Since the age of two, Wash has worked on Faith, a brutal plantation in Barbados where slaves are routinely maimed, girls his age impregnated and runaways burnt alive.

He lives under the tenuous protection of Big Kit, a hardened, hulking witch who believes killing them both will bring them home to Dahomey, Africa.

But he is plucked from his guardian and given to Christopher "Titch" Wilde, his master's eclectic inventor brother, who is building an airship called the Cloud-cutter and needs an assistant who is just the right weight.

Life with Titch exposes Wash to a world of wonder and he soon discovers his gift for scientific illustration.

Washington Black (below) is the third novel by Esi Edugyan (above) and her second on the Man Booker Prize shortlist.
Washington Black (above) is the third novel by Esi Edugyan and her second on the Man Booker Prize shortlist. PHOTO: SERPENT'S TAIL

But a tragic turn of events forces them to go on the run, a journey that will take Wash to the icy wastes of the Arctic, the tide pools of Nova Scotia and the early aquariums of London.

Edugyan has crafted a rollicking adventure alight with the joys of scientific discovery, peopled by characters you cannot help but love and mourn.

Wash is a hero for the ages: It is marvellous to watch him blossom into brilliance yet it is bitterly frustrating to see this stymied by his status.

The novel also sets up a much-needed confrontation with the white saviour trope that has surfaced in slave narratives such as Quentin Tarantino's film Django Unchained (2012).

The greatest anguish of slavery, Wash comes to realise, is that your life is not your own - you are estranged from the potential of everything you could accomplish. Whether he will ever bridge that loss is unclear at the novel's close.

Edugyan reminds us that, in every scientific leap forward, we should always look for those whom progress has left unnamed.

If you like this, read: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (Fleet, 2017, $18.95, Books Kinokuniya). Cora, a young slave on a Georgia plantation, makes a bid for freedom via the Underground Railroad - reimagined as a literal subterranean train system.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 02, 2018, with the headline 'Slave adventure filled with joy of scientific discovery'. Print Edition | Subscribe