The Sky Is The Limit
Canadian writer Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black, shortlisted for the Man Booker prize last year, and winner of other awards and much acclaim, is set in the nineteenth century when slavery was still in existence, with all its attendant horrors.
The protagonist of this picaresque novel is George Washington Black or “Wash”, who started life on a sugar plantation in Barbados, under a very cruel master. At the start of the book, he is eleven years old, an orphan, who is looked after by another slave he calls Big Kit. His fate would have been like the other “field niggers” had he not been picked by his master’s eccentric, science-obsessed brother Christopher “Titch” Wilde to be his personal assistant.
Titch treats Wash like a human being, and when he discovers the boy’s astonishing talent for drawing, he involves him even more in his researches. Much to the annoyance of his barbaric brother, Erasmus, Titch is busy building a hot air balloon, that he calls a cloud-cutter. During the process, Wash is burnt in an accidental blast and his face disfigured, which, strangely, does not hamper his destiny in any way.
When the Wildes’ cousin Philip, bringing news of their father’s death in the Arctic, inexplicably shoots himself the presence of Wash, Titch knows that the slave will probably be brutally killed for no fault of his. The two of them escape on the balloon, crash into a ship and then land in America, pursued by a slave hunter, hired by Erasmus.
Titch, who endangered his own life for Wash, abandons him in the Arctic wastes, where they go to look for Wilde senior, who, it turns out, was not dead, but living with his partner Peter Haas, amidst the natives. Wash’s amazing luck holds, as he survives, travels, to Nova Scotia and then London with a marine biologist Dr Goff and his daughter Tana, who falls in love with him. His life’s mission, however, becomes the search for Titch, or at least some information of where he is, and why he left him behind in middle of nowhere.
The book may be densely plotted and its twists often contrived, but its vision is still breathtaking wide, the narration of Wash’s adventure always gripping, and the prose evocative. All of which make it a rewarding read.