In her extraordinary third novel, Esi Edugyan tells the tale of a boy who was raised in brutal servitude and winds up seeing more of the world than he ever anticipated.
It’s not every slave narrative that delivers a sentence like this: “The visit to Wolcott and Sons was delayed until our return, and Goff was left unhappily with the task of sourcing eelgrass.”
Granted, that comes toward the end of Esi Edugyan’s extraordinary third novel. But it’s indicative of the globe-hopping leaps and detours the book takes as it tells the tale of a boy who was raised in brutal servitude and winds up seeing more of the world than he ever anticipated.
Edugyan, who lives in Victoria, B.C., seems to reinvent herself with every book. Her debut novel, “The Second Life of Samuel Tyne,” focused on a Ghanaian immigrant who inherits a decrepit mansion in a small Canadian town (Edugyan grew up in Alberta, the daughter of Ghanaian immigrant parents). Her second novel, “Half-Blood Blues,” traces the fate of a black German jazz trumpeter who is arrested and sent to a concentration camp during World War II. (“Half-Blood Blues” won the Scotiabank Giller Prize and was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, Orange Prize and Governor General’s Literary Award.)
With the saga of young George Washington Black, Edugyan takes us to 1830s Barbados where her 11-year-old narrator, nicknamed “Wash,” becomes an object of contention between two brothers, plantation-owner Erasmus Wilde and flight-obsessed scientist Christopher Wilde (nicknamed “Titch”). Erasmus reluctantly lends Wash to Titch to serve as his assistant for his latest project: a hydrogen-buoyed “Cloud-cutter.”
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Titch’s initial choice of Wash has less to do with his character or intelligence than with his light weight: “Yes, you are precisely the size that I need.” But as soon as he discovers the boy’s instinctive talent for drawing, Titch makes Wash “chief illustrator” of his scientific enterprises and gives him a nurturing attention and education that he wouldn’t get any other way.
Edugyan is unsparing about how grim life is for human “property” on Erasmus’ plantation, and Wash is a child who fully grasps his plight. “A man who has belonged to another learns very early to observe a master’s eyes,” he says. “What I saw in this man’s terrified me. He owned me, as he owned all those I lived among, not only our lives but also our deaths, and that pleased him too much.”
Erasmus’ cruelty makes Wash’s shaky trust of his new circumstances with Titch poignantly understandable. After all, Erasmus could reclaim him any time. But that doesn’t happen. Early on in the book, Wash hints at a “strange second life” that awaits him, and in a storm scene worthy of Robert Louis Stevenson, Titch and Wash take to the skies and flee Barbados. By that time, however, Wash has had an accident that leaves his face “ruinously burnt,” making him an easily spotted target for a slave-catcher to track down.
“I became a boy without identity, a walking shadow,” Wash says, “and with each new month I fell deeper into strangeness.”
Edugyan’s shape-shifting narrative takes Wash to antebellum Virginia, the Canadian Arctic, Nova Scotia, England, the Netherlands and Morocco. His observation that “the nature of what happened isn’t fixed; it shifts and warps with the years” is borne out time and again. His realization of what he’s up against is sharp. “I knew the nature of evil,” he says. “I knew its benign, easy face.”
Edugyan is a marvelous writer — lyrical, fanciful, subtle, fond of paradox — and “Washington Black” reads like a picaresque epic laced with persistent threat. Edugyan knows what it’s like for Wash to conduct an “erratic pursuit of an unanswerable truth” as he comes to terms with his destiny, and she keeps a keen eye on his attempt to bridge the gap between what he has to offer the world and how the world sees him.
“I had long seen science as the great equalizer,” he says. “No matter one’s race, or sex, or faith — there were facts in the world waiting to be discovered. How little thought I’d given to the ways in which it might be corrupted.”
His dawning comprehension on that point makes for a powerful, twisting work of historical fiction.
“Washington Black” by Esi Edugyan; Knopf; 334 pp.; $26.95
The author reads from “Washington Black” at 7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 17, Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free; 206-624-6600, elliottbaybook.com