In my first foray into this year’s shortlist, I mentioned that if reading another slavery-themed novel this year, the bar would be set extremely high for me.
To my surprise, ‘Washington Black’ turns out not to be a slavery-themed novel – or at least not in the way I expected.
We begin on a sugar plantation in Barbados with our young narrator, George Washington Black. Alongside his protector Big Kit, he endures the horrors of cruel labour and mistreatment at the hands of the plantation owner.
But things change when he meets Christopher Wilde, known as Titch, the master’s brother. An abolitionist, he shows Wash a kindness he hasn’t experienced from white men before. And when tragedy strikes, they must escape the island together.
The adventure that ensues takes them from the Arctic to Nova Scotia to England, the Netherlands and Morocco.
I suppose what I think of when reading a novel involving slavery is based on the traditional narrative of that sub-genre.
Usually, we follow a character who finds some kind of meaning or sense of self despite the cruelty they have suffered (such as Marlon James’ excellent The Book of Night Women), or perhaps the hero of the novel might stage a coup against their master (as in Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, or Alejo Carpentier’s El Reino de Este Mundo) or the novel is an exploration of the lingering aftereffects of enduring slavery (as in Toni Morrison’s Beloved).
(Only now do I realise quite how much I seem to gravitate naturally towards this genre. Alarming.)
Anyhoo, Washington Black doesn’t fall into any of these categories, and actually isn’t so much a novel of slavery as it is a novel about individual belonging and finding sympathy and respect with others, which happens to begin on a slave plantation.
At the start of the novel, Edugyan seems to be leaning towards making a moral point about the horrendous treatment of black slaves by white plantation owners, but Washington’s subsequent journey seems much more about his own individual character than it seems to represent emancipated slaves – or even more generally, anybody escaping trauma – as a group.
Rather, we seem to end up looking for meaning on a much more granular level. Instead of exploring how a group can overcome a tragic and deeply unjust history, we look at what happens when one misfit meets another. Unfortunately, the message seems to be that it’s not always so easy to forge a community comprised of those society doesn’t have a place for.
Location, location… and another location
We leave the plantation not a third of the way into the novel, by way of Titch’s invention, the ‘cloud-cutter’ hot air balloon. From there, we travel all over the world, sometimes only spending a few pages in each place.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure that quite this extreme number of locations was really adding anything to the story, other than aligning it with the tradition of adventure fiction.
While the plantation is richly imagined, the later locations seem almost insignificant; no time is spent painting them in. They are merely where something important happens to be (and this important thing might easily have been elsewhere).
What makes a good man?
Unlike several of the slavery novels I mentioned above, Washington Black doesn’t make its moral position easy to decipher.
Treading very carefully so as not to reveal anything that the book blurb doesn’t, I can say that Titch disappears after the great escape.
It turns out that we can’t simply pop him in the ‘white saviour’ box, as the benevolent guardian who rescues Wash from a life of hardship. And so much the better. Not only would it make for an unsatisfying read, but would be a bit of a betrayal of everything being done currently to steer Western arts away from that oh-so-convenient narrative.
In fact, several of the characters are ambiguous and make choices that sit well neither with themselves or with others.
This seemed to me like fertile ground for making ‘Washington Black’ the profound character drama that it might have been. But Edugyan seems to stop just short of giving them the depth and intricacy that could have elevated them into multi-faceted, classic characters, even with all the potential they have.
I was left with a lot of questions to chew over at the end of the novel relating to this decision, the open possibilities left to the characters, and the moral judgement we are supposed to make on them. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I felt slightly discombobulated at the finish line as if there would be another, final, chapter to tie those loose ends together.
For me, Washington Black seems like an outlier for the Man Booker prize this year. It was a really enjoyable and well-written read, certainly much easier going that most of the other nominees, but possibly lacking that real urgency that some of them have really impressed on me.
Next up: The Overstory by Richard Powers…
Buy a copy of Washington Black using my Amazon affiliate link.