This was my fourth read from this year’s Man Booker shortlist and the most conventional I have read so far. The novel begins in Barbados in 1832 on a plantation owned by Erasmus Wilde, an Englishman who inherited the estate from an uncle on his mother’s side. He has been forced to manage the business as his father, a famous explorer who has spent most of his life away from home and family, shows no interest. As you might expect, Erasmus runs the plantation with cruelty and treats the slaves he has inherited (and now owns) as inhuman; they represent nothing more to him than units of work who must be managed and mistreated in order to keep them functioning. George Washington Black (‘Wash’) is a young boy at this time who has known nothing in his life apart from slavery. He lives on the plantation mainly in the care of Big Kit, a fellow slave who protects but also, at times, treats him cruelly, for what she sees as his own good, to harden him up for the life he will lead.
Washington Black’s life is turned around, however, when Erasmus’s younger brother, Christopher, or ‘Titch’, arrives at the plantation. He is an inventor, a man of science like his father, who does not share his brother’s views on slavery. Titch has come to Barbados in order to work on a flying machine he has designed and asks his brother for a helper. Erasmus loans him Washington Black and the boy goes to live in Titch’s quarters, helping him with drawings and experiments as well as practical household tasks. Titch discovers that Washington has considerable artistic talent as well as abilities which will be useful in his science projects and he teaches him to read. This change in Wash’s circumstances means he can probably never go back to being with the other slaves and the question is posed whether Titch has served his protégé well.
A cousin of the Wilde brothers, Philip, arrives at Faith plantation to convey the news that the men’s father is missing presumed dead. Titch is devastated, but for Erasmus this represents yet more administrative burden as it means he must now run all the family’s business. Philip remains at Faith plantation for many weeks, staying in Titch’s quarters, so Wash gets to know him well. He is a malign presence; on one occasion, while out with Titch observing the preparations for the flying machine he shouts an instruction to Wash that causes him to stand too close to a device that explodes. Wash suffers disfiguring facial burns and it is as if Philip knew it would happen.
One day, Philip takes Wash, to help him on a shooting trip, during which the troubled Philip turns the gun on himself and commits suicide. It is immediately clear to 12 year old Wash that, as the only witness, he will be blamed and most likely executed. Wash returns to Faith to tell Titch, who is also quick to realise the implications. Titch decides they must leave immediately and he decides to launch the flying machine he has been working on. The night is a stormy one, however, and not ideal conditions for the launch of the ‘Cloud-cutter’, a bizarre contraption that seems to be a cross between a hot-air balloon and a rowing boat. Though it travels for a short distance, they have to finally crash land it on a boat in the ocean. Fortunately, the ship’s captain is sympathetic and allows the pair to sail with them to America.
Wash is now an escaped slave, and one instantly recognisable by his scarred face. Titch takes Wash with him on a search for his missing father (he does not believe that he died), but it becomes apparent that he wishes to separate from him. The two eventually find Titch’s father in the frozen north of Canada, and it is clear that the relationship between the two men is a difficult one that leaves Titch troubled. During a blizzard, Titch leaves their camp, and Wash finds himself alone and having to fend for himself, even more so when the old man eventually does die.
The rest of the novel is about how Wash makes his way in the world, evades capture by a slave-hunter and eventually finds himself in England, pursuing his passion for biology. Always, however, he is preoccupied by Titch’s abandonment of him and by the mystery of his own early life when he was transported from Africa. He finds some success and a settled life, but he becomes frustrated with the fact that his achievements will never be fully recognised, even in abolitionist England, because he is a black former slave.
This is an interesting and fascinating novel and I found the story deeply engaging. The characters are well-drawn and authentic and the issue of black slavery, the horrors of it and how it dehumanised all its victims, is vividly explored. The novel is broad in scope and beautifully written and I enjoyed it very much. Like most of the books I have read so far from the shortlist (The Long Take excepted) there is a drop in pace about half to two thirds of the way through, and I do think this is an editing issue. There are parts that could have been slimmed down in my view.
That issue aside, it remains a great story, and I recommend it.
How did you rate this Man Booker shortlisted book?
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