This is a picaresque novel full of adventures and multiple locations: from the slave plantation in Barbados to the frozen wastelands of the Canadian Arctic; from the structured canals of Amsterdam to the wild coasts of Nova Scotia; from the scientific calm of the London Aquarium to the wind-swept deserts of Morocco. It is peopled by explorers, adventurers, scientists and exploiters. Everyone is seeking something: discovery; freedom; equality or survival, and it can all be realised as Washington Black says to his mentor who warns him something is impossible, “Nothing is possible, sir, until it is made so.”
Washington Black is rescued from his brother’s slave plantation by adventurer and inventor Christopher ‘Titch’ Wilde, who says he wants a young boy to help him carry his instruments and take scientific measurements. Titch is trying to sail in a cloud cutter – a craft propelled by both a hot air balloon and more prosaic oars. He encourages Washington’s prodigious gift of drawing and removes him from the daily cruelty of life he has previously experienced. Is he really benevolent, however, or simply using him for his own means?
After an incredibly unfortunate incident, Titch knows that he and Washington must flee and so they affect a wonderfully improbable escape to the Canadian Arctic. Here Washington is introduced to a new world, culture and relationships. When Titch disappears from Washington’s life, he is presumed dead, and Washington must attempt to forge his own way in the world that has hitherto denied him freedom.
Edugyan never flinches from the violence and barbarism of slavery and its consequences, but nor does she dwell upon it. Washington knows his mother was abused and raped, and he writes baldly of the horrors of the slave ships: “The stench of the holds, all of them rolling naked and ill in the dark stomach of the barquentine. The urine and excrement and vomit, men clawing their own throats open with ragged fingernails, bloodied women leaping the deck rails into waters sharp with the fins of sharks. I saw the dozens who had died on the way to Barbados, and I saw those who died once ashore.”
In striving for his freedom, Washington severs his ties with his previous existence and the people he once knew and cared for – it seems that he can only care for himself in order to survive. The novel questions the meaning of belonging. We understand that we do not belong to a person, but can we belong to a place, and how important are family connections? When Washington suspects that Titch may be alive, he begins to search for him, but why? Was he abandoned?