This review by Iman Khabl (Operations Assistant in Sales at Faber & Faber) is part of a series of reviews of the 2018 Man Booker Shortlist.
Esi Edugyan’s third book Washington Black takes the reader on a journey through the most disparate places: Barbados plantation to Virginia, the Arctic, Nova Scotia, London, Amsterdam, and Morocco.
However, it is the opening pages that stick with you far longer than the troubled voyages around the globe. Washington Black is an eleven year old boy who was born into slavery but despite his young age, he is acutely aware of changes happening around him in the plantation.
Through her hero’s eyes, Esi Edugyan depicts a snapshot of life in the Barbados plantation. Nevertheless her words never drift into romanticizing slavery or turn away from the deeply unsettling annihilation of the human condition under such brutal daily violence.
The most shocking cruelty we witness is not a physical one; it is the robbing of freedom even in death. One does really wish that Edugyan would have stopped a bit longer in Barbados and followed the unfolding of all the lives that surrounded Washington himself.
Sadly we have to depart from Kit, a formidable woman who is the boy’s only parental figure in the plantation, and after only a few pages Washington is now a young man who will embark not only on a physical journey but on a wider exploration of the self and what it truly means to be free.
It’s possible to observe how this wondrous novel echoes in parts the stunning Half-Blood Blues (Edugyan’s previously shortlisted novel) , as it can be read both as a bildungsroman, exploring its protagonist’s growth through his art, as well as being a much deeper reflection on how to gain freedom from the labels and the scars inflicted by a hierarchical system flawed at its core.
If third time really is the charm, then Washington Black, even as the youngest of three siblings, is more than deserving of bringing an eventual victory to Esi Edugyan.