I’m not a big follower of the Man Booker Prize but a handful of this year’s longlist titles piqued my interest, and at the top of the pile was one adorned with an airship. It sounded like an adventure story, in the Booker! Needless to say I had to read it.
The story follows young George Washington Black, Wash for short, a slave born on a sugar plantation on Barbados. The first few chapters have a horrific familiarity to many slave stories, but the difference here, Wash is allowed to have an adventure. Esi Edugyan has argued this is a post-slavery story because of that, but you are reminded that in reality, life wouldn’t have been so good for Wash.
But Wash is selected by his master’s brother to help him with his experiments, specifically his airship. The relationship between Titch and Wash is awkward and highlights the complexities of the dynamics between slaves and white men, even when the white man is trying to be nice. Wash is a possession, he is used to following order or being punished. He can’t easily fall into the jovial role of apprentice that Titch seems to want, and Titch does not truly understand.
You were more concerned that slavery should be a moral stain upon white men than by the actual damage it wreaks on black men.
Even when Wash is free from the plantation, he does not have true freedom. He is still a runaway slave, he is still seen as less than a white man and he is still wholly reliant on the protections afforded by Titch.
If that all seems a bit heavy, there is adventure too. From airships to pirates, the Arctic to London, Wash sees the world through the eyes of a slave. The airship didn’t feature for the whole book and I must admit to being slightly disappointed that he wasn’t travelling the world in it.
Wash turns out to be gifted in illustration, and this leads him to a renowned naturalist. I had the odd experience of a historical figure clicking into place, only later to look him up and find he wasn’t quite that figure. Philip Henry Gosse was the man who is credited with the idea of the modern aquarium and was responsible for Ocean House at London Zoo. He was known to employ young black boys as apprentices, and he had several beautifully illustrated books published. It would not have a been a stretch to have him as Wash’s mentor. But no, the character is called Goff, which is just too close for you not to assume it’s the same person. I’m sure not many people are making the connection (unless you’ve read the zoo’s history boards recently) but I felt it was an odd choice.
I listened to the audiobook narrated by Dion Graham who did an excellent job as Wash. He read it as if being told by the grown up man, only resorting to childish voices in the dialogue. I thoroughly enjoyed it and it has made me want to dig out Half Blood Blues, which I know I have somewhere!
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Book Source: Purchased