Washington Black (2018) by Esi Edugyan
This is one of the best novels I have ever read. By turns heartbreaking and inspiring—I was enthralled from the first page to the last. I read it in a matter of hours because I could not put it down.
The plot involves a young slave named Washington Black, called “Wash,” who leaves Faith plantation on Barbados with a white man, Christopher Wilde, the adventurous brother of the hateful plantation owner, Erasmus.
Initially set in Barbados in 1830, the story immerses us in the cruelties and horrors of slavery, all while giving us reason for hope with the arrival of Wilde’s brother “Titch” as Christopher is known. Early in the story, Titch takes Wash into his care because, as we find out, he needed a boy of a certain height and weight for his flight in the Cloud-Cutter, a balloon reminiscent of those in a Jules Verne novel.
As he learns to trust Titch, Wash also learns more about himself and his own talents: he is an artist and a visionary. Titch encourages his growing talents and depends on Wash to help him complete his plans to launch the Cloud-Cutter. With the help of the other slaves, the two take off but soon hit bad weather, and the balloon collides with a ship. On this ship, they reach America, but their troubles are not over. They will encounter many dangers as well as see incredible beauty before the novel comes to an end.
Edugyan takes readers on an adventurous, perilous ride in which Wash discovers who he is and who he wants to be. The story has the feeling of magical realism, but for all of the “magic” that happens, we remain grounded in the realistic depictions of the brutality of slavery and the consequences of hating our fellow man.
This book is in the grand tradition of the bildungsroman—in every way this is a coming of age story. But it is so much more than that. Wash’s story is one for our times, one for all times, when it is all too easy to turn a blind eye to the suffering that is right underneath our noses. Washington Black is a lesson in how to survive; it is primer on human behavior—the good, bad, and inbetween. It is also a love story of great depth and beauty—not just between Wash and Tanna (the daughter of a marine scientist with whom Wash works), but between the reader and the narrator. His voice is haunting, right up to the end of the story. I wanted more, but he had finished with what he wanted to tell us. The story he tells is life-changing.