Washington “Wash” Black was born into slavery on Faith Plantation in Barbados. He begins his story at age eleven in the year 1830, just after the death of his first master, whose nephew Erasmus Wilde is sent in to take over the operation. Days pass by, and Faith grows harsher, more brutal. Then Erasmus’s brother Christopher, or Titch as we come to know him, visits the property with a dream to launch his Cloud-cutter (prototype hot air balloon) from nearby Corvus Peak. He regards himself as an abolitionist and scientist, and he “borrows” Wash as an assistant and retains the boy after discovering his knack for drawing. The “contraption” eventually does get off the ground, carrying Wash and Titch out to sea.
At this point I figured Wash was free and the next two-thirds of the novel would be an around-the-world adventure, or the balloon would touch down in Africa and Wash might be reunited with his family, or at least his homeland, and I really wanted it to go that way because I couldn't recall any stories about slaves returning or being returned to their own people. Alas, though, the Cloud-cutter crashes fatefully onto the aft-deck of a ship en route to Virginia. Then the plot becomes as much a maelstrom as the storm that brought down the balloon, and this for the novel is a problem.
Don’t get me wrong, Esi Edugyan’s prose are extraordinarily descriptive, and convinced me that the narrator was actually telling the tale in the 19th century, and the story held my interest from start to finish, but the chapters on the ship and in Virginia, the Arctic, Nova Scotia, and London seemed arbitrary in a few places and lacked the cohesion we were treated to between the story elements back at Faith Plantation. The ending, in Morocco, I found significant, and I’m glad too that Wash, whose face appears half-melted from a burn, falls in love.
It’s easy to see how Washington Black was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2018—Edugyan’s writing is powerful. Plus, she makes it easy for the reader to see, smell, or otherwise sense what she’s created for us. But, again, too many parts of this third novel of hers feel unintentionally inconsequential, and I wonder what the book would be if the “middle” wasn't there—just the beginning and end—or if the balloon had missed the storm, and blown off someplace else.