Esi Edugyan (Profile Books, Serpent’s Tail)
Escape is only the beginning. From the brutal cane plantations of Barbados to the icy wastes of the Canadian Arctic, from the mud-filled streets of London to the eerie deserts of Morocco, Washington Black is the tale – inspired by a true story – of a world destroyed and the search to make it whole again.
When two English brothers take the helm of a Barbados sugar plantation, Washington Black – an eleven year-old field slave – finds himself selected as personal servant to one of these men. The eccentric Christopher ‘Titch’ Wilde is a naturalist, explorer, scientist, inventor and abolitionist, whose single-minded pursuit of the perfect aerial machine mystifies all around him.
Titch’s idealistic plans are soon shattered and Washington finds himself in mortal danger. They escape the island together, but then Titch disappears and Washington must make his way alone, following the promise of freedom further than he ever dreamed possible.
Judge Leo Robson comments:
‘Esi Edugyan’s ravishing third novel is narrated by its title character–an eighteen-year-old freeman recalling his escape from life as a child slave on a sun-scorched sugar plantation in Barbados, British West India, during the 1820s. Until the age of ten or eleven, Washington recalls, only his sweat was of value. Then he meets Christopher Wilde–“Titch”–a garrulous, kindly-seeming engineer who recognises Washington's other gifts, in particular a native intelligence sufficient to master skills and learn arcane facts and record the equations for his aerostatic experiments. And so begins Washington's “strange second life.” Borne to freedom on a hydrogen balloon, he travels to Virginia, to Nova Scotia and the Arctic, to Amsterdam and London while pursuing his newfound gift for draughtsmanship and interest in marine zoology. Broad in size and scope, Washington Black proceeds over almost fifty brisk-paced chapters. Edugyan’s achievement, in unfolding Wash's story, is one full of contraries. It is a novel of ideas but also of the senses, a yarn and a lament, a chase story that doubles as an intellectual quest, a history lesson in the form of a fairy tale. Moments of horrifying cruelty and violence sit alongside episodes of great tenderness and deep connection. A majestic grandeur is achieved with the lightest touch.’