Man Booker Review #4 – “Washington Black” by Esi Edugyan

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 imgWashington 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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Book review: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

This book was everywhere when it first came out last year, surprising since it was written by a little known author and published by a relatively small independent publisher. It became a bestseller, was shortlisted for the 2016 Costa Novel Award and was the Waterstones Book of the Year. I was very keen to read it but it seemed to take a long time to be issued in paperback, so I’ve been hanging on for a while.

The Essex Serpent imgThe book is set mostly in the fictional Essex village of Aldwinter in the 1890s and the action takes place over the course of a year. The central dynamic of the plot is the relationship between Cora Seaborne, a woman approximately in her late 30s, who at the start of the novel is newly widowed, and William (Will) Ransome, the local minister. Will is happily married to Stella and they have three children, while Cora is happily widowed! It seems hers was a fairly loveless marriage in which she felt constrained and imprisoned and her husband appears to have been somewhat older than her. The lack of intimacy in the marriage is indicated by the fact they had only one child, Francis, and that he is an unusual boy (for Cora “nothing shamed her as much as her son”), who is almost certainly autistic.

Once she becomes widowed, Cora is able to follow her passion for natural science, and she moves out of London to Essex. There she becomes captivated by a local myth, a mysterious serpent that villagers feel is responsible for unnatural happenings, including unexplained deaths, crop failures, madness and distressed livestock. Cora first encounters Will on one of her forest walks, when the two rescue a sheep from a bog. They later meet socially and thereafter strike up an increasingly intimate friendship. The book becomes about the development of their relationship against a backdrop of events connected with the serpent, with the illness of Will’s wife, and Cora’s relationships with other friends, including that of Luke Garrett, a brilliant surgeon who is clearly in love with her.

Whilst the book is essentially about relationships and the nature of love (it is explored in many forms) it is also about a clash of worlds. Firstly, the old versus the modern – it is no coincidence the book is set on the eve of the 20th century – and science versus religion, where Cora and Will have some of their most passionate debates. There is also reason versus superstition; the villagers fear the Essex Serpent, whereas Will finds his parishioners’ fears almost pagan in tone, and Cora wants to prove the existence of the serpent, as some sort of lost creature.

Perry also explores the position of women, from Cora, the scientist, for whom marriage had “so degraded her expectations of happiness” and for whom widowhood and thus the single life had “freed her from the obligation to be beautiful”, to Stella the model dutiful Victorian wife and mother, afflicted by a quintessentially 19th century illness. There is also Martha, Cora’s maid (although her exact position in the household slightly defies definition!), also a political activist who utilises the connections she has made through Cora to further her Marxist leanings. In many ways the themes of the novel are very modern indeed – Martha’s campaigning for suitable social housing for the poor of London is resonant of a very 21st century problem. It’s also a very erotic novel, in the Gothic sense, without being explicit; there are many tensions below the surface and some of these do not get fully resolved, which is actually quite true to life when you think about it.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it highly. It gripped me to the end. It’s a novel rich in themes, rich in its descriptive power and rich in its evocation of time and place.

If you have read this much talked-about book, I’d love to know what you thought of it.

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