This novel, by Esi Edugyan, was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 2018. It is an unusual novel by its attention to historical detail. It is a novel about the limits of love and friendship set in the context of slavery.
It starts by describing the life of a young slave on a plantation in Barbados in 1830. His name is Washington Black. The prose descriptions of life on the plantation are vivid and harsh. Washington experiences both wanton cruelty and motherly protection. When the plantation owner’s brother (Titch) arrives to carry out further scientific research, Washington becomes his technical assistant. The story of this relationship provides the central focus of the novel.
In an extraordinary escape from a violent death, the unlikely pair flee the island in a balloon, land on a boat and end up searching for the long-lost father in the Arctic. The wonderful descriptive and realistic prose help to carry the reader along this strange journey from extreme heat to extreme cold. The wildness of nature is reflected in the wildness of emotions experienced by Washington as he finds himself abandoned by Titch.
Yet Washington finds love and direction in the Arctic and with the help of another scientist and his daughter makes his way to London to set up a Marine Museum. At the end of a journey, Washington rediscovers Titch in Morocco at the edge of the desert engaged in more scientific research.
This novel reflects on the complexity involved in human friendships. The expectations and hopes in the partner are never fulfilled and one is left with a frustrating sense of incompleteness. It could be argued that while Washington was abandoned by Titch, Washington inadvertently abandoned Big Kit, back on the plantation, whom he finally discovers through old slave records, to be his own mother.
The novel throws light on the warps in human personality caused by complicity with slavery. The shadows of this awful past still mark friendships today.