#785 A New World Oliver Twist

Washington Black
by Esi Edugyan

Toronto: HarperCollins, 2018
$33.99 / 9781443423380

Reviewed by Theo Dombrowski


Since its publication in the summer of 2018, Esi Edugyan’s novel Washington Black has made a resounding impact. Reviews abound; awards and award short listings likewise. Stirring most comment and praise are not just the gripping story line, but also the richly nuanced language and the complex perceptions of slavery and race.

Because Twentieth Century Fox has recently announced that it is to make the novel into a television series, it makes sense to have a second look at the book. In fact, even before this announcement, it occurred to at least one reader that the novel had been written with an eye towards filming.

Consider the kind of storyline: Erasmus, a new plantation owner makes a young slave boy’s rough life worse, sauntering from one casual cruelty to another, his brutality mitigated only marginally by the stolid strength of Kit, an enigmatic slave woman who singles out Wash, the slave boy, for as much protection as she can manage. Fortuitously, the slight boy and large woman come into favoured positions as house servants. Enter an ex machina figure, Erasmus’ brother, Titch, who adopts Wash as an assistant for his strange and wonderful project, building a hydrogen-filled balloon. When things go horribly awry with Wash’s “strange second life,” the forward momentum of the novel intensifies.

Esi Edugyan, 2018

Fear and flight, pursuit and panic drive Wash and his vulnerable protector from one harrowing threat to another. In the grip of a menacing ship’s captain, he shelters with the captain’s chiropodist twin brother (sic), before fleeing to rural Virginia for protection with a sad and ineffectual abolitionist.

The pursuit intensifies yet more: a ghoulish bounty hunter cranks up the anxiety and desperation of the escape. Shifting from one memorable place to another — the frozen wastes of Hudson Bay included — the novel concludes, several years later, in a remote Moroccan village.

It is only in the fourth and last part that the kind of action shifts. No longer a novel of fear and flight, it becomes the opposite, a novel of quest and restless sorrow. The quest ends, finally, with Wash, a young man, having partially, at least, confronted many of the spectres of his past and, just possibly, making peace with them.

Onto these two major plot patterns another is grafted — grafted because it never fully takes root (and, indeed, is largely ignored in most reviews.) Dollars to doughnuts, however, it will blossom in the fecund soil of film-land. For, yes, Edguyan provides her readers with a love story.

It is, of course, not a straightforward love story. Quirky and testy at first, it becomes affectionate enough, but entangled with lust, guilt, and self-loathing. Before long, however, it resolves and shifts into the background, inflecting the quest story, no longer a story in itself.

A final characteristic of the story telling — and one that seems to have passed largely unnoticed — could make for colourful film-making. Palpable throughout is the narrative energy of a Charles Dickens (or, at times, a Robert Louis Stevenson), particularly in the first part of the book. In fact, Washington Black is, for much of the novel, a kind of New World Oliver Twist — a young, imperilled orphan boy at the bottom of the social order, a human pingpong ball tossed about by the vicissitudes of fortune, utterly dependent on the cruelty or kindness of strangers.

Further, the story abounds in coincidences: characters slip into the past and reappear in extraordinary ways, some terrifying, some haunting, some moving, one in pure Dickensian mode, revealing a long hidden blood relationship.

Even more striking are the almost Dickensian characters. Any filmmaker will be hard-pressed to cast many of these visually remarkable people as Edgoyan (vividly) describes them. To take but two examples, consider one Edgar Farrow, “rail-thin, with a large oblong head and limp black hair,” or “large and spectral” Peter House, “tall and reed-thin, his cadaverous cheeks chapped with wind, a livid beard of grey hairs raging from his face.”

For story and visual impact, then, Washington Black has the stuff of a gripping television series.

L-R: Canadian, UK, and US editions

It is possible, however, to exaggerate the cinematic qualities. Any potential readers who shortcut directly to their recliners and large screen television sets without reading the book, will deprive themselves of some of the novel’s richest experiences.

First is the narrative voice. Every scene, every sentence is coloured by the personality and perspective of Washington Black. No “voice over” could come close to conveying the extent to which “Wash’s voice interpenetrates the narration. “How do I explain the events that followed?” he asks at one point, interposing the filter of his own personality and memory: “the nature of what happened isn’t fixed; it shifts and warps with the years.” More to the point, Edguyan shrugs at the need for complete plausibility, creating a narrator who is sharply articulate, even strangely elegant. Unusually astute, he is given to making penetrating observations on just about anything: of the relationship between Titch and his father, for example, he reflects, “as with most loves, it was shadowy, and painful, and confusing.” Hardly what most of us think to be the nature of love, Wash’s words nevertheless stick.

More to the point, the voice is not only the conduit of the novel’s vision, but also its the object. “I became a boy without identity, a walking shadow, and with each new month I fell deeper into strangeness. For there could be no belonging for a creature such as myself, anywhere: a disfigured back boy with a scientific turn of mind and a talent on canvas, running always running, from the dimmest of shadows.” Further, Wash is often protean, his thoughts and feelings as unexpected as they are vivid, palpable, present: “I understood, in that moment, the terrible bottomless nature of the open world, when one belongs nowhere, and to no one.”

Though often cerebral, Wash is just as often a finely tuned instrument on which sensory impressions resonate. The novel is awash with sights and sounds — and even more strikingly, smells. Philip’s body, for example, “smelled of molasses and salted cod, and of the fine sweetness of mangoes in the hot season.” A whole town can equally smell: “Norfolk stank. Its docks stank of tobacco, of lead, of crushed reeds and especially of cotton…. It stank of unwashed deckhands and mutton stew and offal steaming in the gutters along the harbour streets. It stank of mud and turpentine and stale perfumes oozing from the pores of the prostitutes in their greasy dresses.” These are sentences to be lingered over, even while the narrative rushes forward.

Esi Edugyan. Photo by Jeffrey Bosdet, courtesy of YAM Magazine

A third achievement of the novel is even more necessarily lost in a film version: the language. More than just fluid and fluent, the writing is, at times, almost hypnotizing. One of the many qualities of the novel that bring to mind the narrative techniques of Toni Morrison, is the way the sentences sometimes build and spill over, the language opalescent, shifting, elusive. Buried in the narrative flow are astounding little nuggets of phrasing, words that startle, stir, and provoke. Consider these: “The rags were like the radiance of some terrible star, bright and emanating from something already extinct.” “And though they were far away, I imagined I could hear them talking, the scorch of their bronzed voices.” “A vague scent of sweat and soil came off their skin, the soft green smell of fresh-cut cane.”

These are amongst the pleasures that a film version cannot possibly provide. Not easy to provide, but necessary to any film worthy of the book, is sense of the what the novel is about — first, the nature of slavery and race, second, the complex ways humans struggle within the entangling web of race and culture, and, third, perhaps most unusually, the afterglow of the eighteenth century “Enlightenment,” in this case manifest in the (British) abolition of slavery, and the astounding explosion of amateur science.

Most prominent — and multifaceted — is Edguyan’s perspective on slavery. It is only in the early part that she evokes the horrors of the kind of brutal slavery of the American south most currently well known in books like Twelve Years a Slave, The Book of Negroes, and Beloved — all, interestingly, filmed. Even then, the Caribbean setting imbues the savagery with a lesser familiar character. Indeed, it seems as if part of Edugyan’s intent is, in the course of the novel, to view slavery from a whole range of historical and cultural perspectives. Thus, she bookends the horrors of slavery in Barbados with equally disturbing scenes in Virginia, marks the transition to the abolition in the British colonies, treads darkly through the still often brutal life of former slaves in Nova Scotia, and concludes with the life of a “free” Wash in England. She even manages to recreate the pathos and horror of enslavement in Africa and the journey across the Atlantic, by giving Wash a kind of vision of Big Kit’s early life: “In my mind I saw…”

Moreover, for Edugyan, slavery runs deep. With a harsh stroke of creative (and cinematic?) symbolism, she has Wash bear a terrible disfigurement, a burn scar that covers most of his face — significantly, the result a fiery explosion ignited by a powerful white man’s casual greed. No matter how, in his life, Wash achieves reprieve or even release, it seems, he bears the scars of his early life as a slave. Often reflecting on the nature of so-called “freedom,” Wash concludes the novel with his thoughts on the real nature of slavery: “And that, it seemed to me clearly, was the most obvious anguish — that life had never belonged to any of us…. We had been estranged from the potential of our own bodies, from the revelation of everything our bodies and minds could accomplish.”

Unusually, too, the novel is about the after-effects of the previous century’s “Age of Enlightenment,” or, at least some of its more colourful elements. An age which valued reason and human values led, in part, to the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, in 1833. Setting her novel on the cusp of this historical moment, Edugyan also makes integral to her storyline the almost bizarre amateur scientific enthusiasm that energized much of European culture at the time — both through the flourishing of many dozens of scientific “societies” and, too, the popular culture that surrounded it. In fact, three of the main characters of the novel, four if we include Wash himself, are driven, almost obsessively, by their enthusiasm to push the boundaries of knowledge, especially of “Natural History.” While a filmmaker could make this just a quirky narrative sidebar, Edguyan works it as a reflection of an evolution of human moral and scientific understanding.

Discomedusae, part of the phylum Cnidaria, from Ernst Haeckel, Kunstformen der Natur (Leipzig und Wien, 1904)

With the (British) Royal Society as a kind of over-arching authority, Titch, Wash’s first, and flawed, white mentor epitomizes the slightly crazed idiosyncrasies of the time, in his case by building a hydrogen filled dirigible, and to boot, on a mountain top. Titch’s father, Fellow of the Royal Society, “the man whose learning had kindled his son’s mind and never burned down… the man whose treatise on the icy nature of comets once left the Sorbonne in chaos,” takes the obsessive quest for discovery even farther — and bizarrely — to a cluster of igloos on the icebound shores of Hudson Bay. At least as important for the storyline, though, is G.M. Goff, author of Cnidaria and Cephalopoda Past and Present, a marine biologist busying obsessively around the isolated shores of Nova Scotia in the quest for yet more undiscovered and strange sea creatures, a man whose credo is “Everything is bizarre, and everything has value.” Although Wash meets him purely by coincidence, it is a coincidence on which the author’s vision of this growth in historical thought depends.

For indeed, astoundingly, amongst all these harmlessly fanatical amateur scientists, the fourth turns out to be Wash himself. Clearly, Edugyan relishes her knowledge of early nineteenth century marine biology. Her writing on a particular octopus at one point and jellyfish at another, are inspired. And while readers may be bemused by details of cnidarians and cephalopods, her protagonist is not. Self-taught, he calmly observes of Goff, without so much as batting an eye, “I do not believe anyone has ever outdone his watercolours in the Resplendence of Nudibranchia.” Stranger things have been said in fiction — but not many.

In fact, she also clearly relishes bestowing on her protagonist exceptional talents. Encouraged by first Titch and then Goff, he becomes a brilliant illustrator of specimens. In addition, as the story develops, his designs for building and populating tanks of marine specimens in London, sound, through Edugyan’s descriptions, both fantastical and devilishly clever. (Some will find here echoes of Peter Carey’s Booker winner Oscar and Lucinda).

And yet. And this is where this element of the novel meshes with the others. While this period of obsessive amateurism in science leads to good story making, it also, in the author’s hands leads to reflections on racism: no matter how astounding Wash’s skills, no matter how “liberal minded” his fellow scientist, Wash’s skin colour and background mark him as indelibly in the minds of the powerful whites as the scar on his face:

[Goff] meant that I had been a slave, and that the savagery of that past left me a ruined being, like some wretched thing pulled smoking from a fire. It did not matter that he accepted me as a thinking man, that he respected my mind, or even that he was in the midst of taking a favour from me. I was black-skinned and burnt, as disfigured inside as without….

Indeed, it is this internal world that truly distinguishes the novel, and may be nearly impossible to echo in film. While Wash’s inner life is the most compelling, it is what Edugyan does with virtually all of the characters that makes her way of approaching the mysterious life not of the iconic octopus, but of the human being, most memorable.

That the characters first come across as Dickensian caricatures is true, yes. But that, time after time, the author shows even the most apparently single-tracked character to be a chimera is even more true. Think: a house with sliding walls, slipping away in front of us, making spaces and realities we would never have expected. If we learn one thing above all others in the course of the novel, it is that we cannot know, truly know, any one.

Take but a few examples. Erasmus, the consummately vicious plantation owner, never veers from his savage course. Catching him unaware, however, Wash is startled to find “his face strangely attractive.” “I glimpsed a sort of brittle prettiness in his features, a delicacy.” Considerably more shocking is the almost instant transformation in another character (unnamed here to sidestep a plot spoiler!), a complacent narcissist who, almost without warning, shoots himself. More subtle, perhaps, but equally startling, is Wash’s parting view of the apparently sinister ship’s captain, Mister Benedikt. Threatening to unmask Wash as a runaway slave, Benedikt “reached out and touched the burnt half of my face, drawing his rough hand sharply back almost at once, as if scorched….His touch had been cool, and gentle, and somehow, though I would never have thought it, filled with an impossible sadness.”

As for Willard, the almost banshee-like bounty hunter whom Wash has eluded for years, Edugyan could hardly craft a more surprising character revelation than the one she does. Finally trapped, Wash finds himself looking at “a thin face, a pleasant face, with high cheekbones and a slow, lipless mouth shadowed by a line of tidy blond hairs. He appeared relaxed, at ease.” Even more unexpected is what she reveals about Wash’s final reaction, later, to the ghoul whom he had always feared: “I did not rejoice at the brutality of his end….He too had been a boy once, desirous of understanding the world. And how he had wasted all his talents….”

Wasting talents, understanding the world — these matter to Edguyan, and to those who have made their way through her world. If, upon watching a televised version of her book, viewers can feel the same, then they can feel, as well, that such a version will have been at least a partial success.


Theo Dombrowski

Born on Vancouver Island, Theo Dombrowski grew up in Port Alberni and studied at the University of Victoria and later in Nova Scotia and London, England. With a doctorate in English literature, he returned to teach at Royal Roads, the University of Victoria, and finally at Lester Pearson College at Metchosin. He also studied painting and drawing at the Banff School of Fine Arts and at UVic. Theo Dombrowski is the author and illustrator of popular guide, travel, and hiking books including Secret Beaches of the Salish Sea (Heritage House, 2012), Seaside Walks of Vancouver Island (Rocky Mountain Books, 2016), Family Walks and Hikes of Vancouver Island — Volume 1: Victoria to Nanaimo, and Volume 2: Nanaimo North to Strathcona Park (Rocky Mountain Books, 2018), reviewed by Chris Fink-Jensen in The Ormsby Review no. 384, September 25, 2018, and a Kindle book, When Baby Boomers Retire. You can learn more about him his website. Theo lives at Nanoose Bay.


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