An Incontestable Beauty

Reviewed by Paul Watkins

Washington Black—the third novel by Esi Edugyan and her second to win the Giller Prize—depicts the life of Washington (Wash) Black, who rises above the conditions of his time to shape a life based on his imagination, intelligence, and artistic talent. Wash seeks freedom and dignity in a society that would deny him the right to be fully human. The novel opens when Wash is eleven years old (it is narrated from his perspective as an eighteen-year-old) on Faith Plantation in Barbados in 1830. The contrast between a young and curious Washington and the injustice of his brutal surroundings is provided through the recollections of his older self: “What I felt at that moment, though I then lacked the language for it, was the raw, violent injustice of it all.” Edugyan does not shy away from the “unspeakable acts” of slavery and the way that slavery continues to affect Wash even when it is abolished throughout the British Empire in 1833. Edugyan’s writing—from her careful plotting to her complex characters—speaks a veritable truth about what it means to be truly free.

Wash’s life changes forever when the brother of Erasmus (the ruthless plantation master), Christopher (Titch) Wilde, arrives. A young scientist and abolitionist, he chooses Washington, on loan from his brother (largely because he is the right size), for his project, the “Cloud-cutter,” which is essentially a hot-air balloon that he plans to launch from the highest peak overlooking the plantation. Titch opens a world of possibility and wonder for Wash. Looking down from Corvus Peak, Wash gains a new perspective: “I stood shaken, confused by the incontestable beauty.” Washington has also been tasked with drawing what he sees, and it is here that his talent as an artist and great mind emerges. While Titch’s intentions seem pure, his character often draws from liberal guilt and self-righteousness, exemplified early on by his shock at Wash’s talent for drawing and scientific inquiry: “Your mind. I had not expected it.”

Another experiment with the Cloud-cutter project causes a hydrogen explosion that leaves Wash’s face scarred. His somatic markings—from his burns and his Blackness—follow him throughout the narrative. As he says, “[m]y colour was already one burden; my burns made life unconscionable,” and this double burden is evident in the pity and violence he experiences. The unexpected death of a white man sets the story in motion and allows for Washington’s transformative journey into tentative freedom and adulthood. Escaping on the Cloud-cutter with Titch, Wash travels to the eastern coast of the US, and then to the far north of the Arctic, Nova Scotia, London, Amsterdam, and finally Morocco. He learns quickly that there is a large world that he is excluded from because he is Black. Rather than let the world be closed to him, Wash seeks his freedom and finds dignity through art and science. Told in four parts and covering six years, the novel provides a portrait of Washington’s life, as well as the social conditions of the time.

In Part Three, Washington creates a life among the Loyalists in Nova Scotia on the edge of the Bedford Basin. He suffers various humiliations, including being beaten and urinated on by his white colleagues. He learns that racism and violence exist beyond the plantation, and that freedom in Canada is relative to whiteness. These sad moments are punctuated by joy as he rededicates himself to art and science: “the sense of freedom was intense.” His artistic practice leads him to meet Tanna Goff, an artist who unabashedly wears trousers and defies rigid categories of womanhood. Wash ends up becoming an assistant to her father, a natural scientist, and his relationship with them opens up his desire for knowledge and, as he gets dangerously close to Tanna, his desire for love. As with an earlier character named Big Kit, who has a voice like “rough music,” I wanted a little more of Tanna, as both characters detail experiences for women of colour during this time. Like Edugyan’s other Giller-winning novel, Half-Blood Blues—an engrossing novel about Americans, Afro-Germans, and Jews playing jazz in Nazi Germany—Washington Black fills a lacuna by depicting Black characters of immense talent who are forgotten to history simply because of the colour of their skin. As Wash decries: “And what will it bring me in the end? Nothing. My name nowhere.”

Washington Black concerns bondage and freedom, as well as love and redemption. Edugyan’s prose is immersive as we travel from the cane fields of Barbados to the deserts of Morocco. Ultimately, Wash wants to belong, and science becomes a great equalizer for him: “No matter one’s race, sex, or faith—there were facts in the world waiting to be discovered.” Categories of race, ability, sexuality, language, and ethnicity do not define a person’s worth. Rather, it is a person’s mind and actions that define them. Washington Black says this much and speaks truth and beauty. We are fortunate to have a great mind like Edugyan’s to tell this remarkable story.

This review “An Incontestable Beauty” originally appeared in 60th Anniversary Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 239 (2019): 153-154.

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