AT THE start of his tale, George Washington Black (Wash), a slave on a sugar plantation in Barbados, is 11 years old. His master has died; his nephew, the cruel tyrant Erasmus Wilde, is installed as the new owner of the estate. Life for the slaves is brutal and violent. The only light appears to be Kit, who has taken Wash under her wing and is fiercely protective of him. He both loves and fears her.
Erasmus’s brother Titch, a scientist and abolitionist, has also come to Barbados. He is intent on building a cloud-cutter (hot-air balloon), and needs ballast. Wash, being the right weight and size, is chosen; his life will never be the same.
The poetic language of the book, which initially jarred with me as seemingly too sophisticated for an uneducated slave, is now explained. Titch teaches Wash to read and broadens his horizons — beyond the plantation and the shameful reality that many slaves contemplated suicide as a way out of oppression and servitude.
Wash is a talented artist, and Titch finds him to be much more than mere ballast. After a tragic incident and the death of Titch’s cousin, they use the cloud-cutter to escape to freedom. Things do not go as planned: the balloon crashes while over the sea. They head to Virginia, and then to the Arctic, as Titch goes in search of his own father, another eccentric scientist. It is here that the two part ways. Titch, bitterly disappointed in his father now he has found him, walks away into a blizzard, refusing to take Wash with him.
George Washington Black is a free man, and slavery is abolished during the course of the book’s timeframe, but the underlying question remains whether he can ever be truly free. Fear of Erasmus’s catching up with him stalks his early years; being a black man in a white world brings limitations; and his experiences, especially the ending of his relationship with Titch, haunt him.
The story leads us from the Arctic to Nova Scotia, London, Amsterdam, and, finally, to Morocco, where the book ends, inconclusively.
I enjoyed this novel, which was a 2018 Man Booker shortlisted volume. Perhaps there were too many differing strands to hold on to, but that did not detract too heavily from the lyrical writing and expressive language of Esi Edugyan, which were a joy.
The Revd Sarah Hillman is Vicar of Puddletown, Tolpuddle, and Milborne with Dewlish, in Dorset.
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