Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black – not only shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize but feted on several best-books-of-the-year lists – opens in a Barbados sugar plantation in the 1830s with the eponymous narrator, a slave boy, relating the events of the old master’s death and the arrival of the new one. At the end of the first chapter, Big Kit, the boy’s protector and mother-figure, decides to kill herself and Wash, as the boy is known, in the hope that they would be reborn free in Big Kit’s native Dahomey.

She is not the only one to consider death an escape door. As the new master turns out to be as sadistic as he looks, the suicides begin. The master quickly shuts down this escape route by severing the victims’ heads after their deaths – one cannot be reborn without the head, after all – leaving Wash and Big Kit in abject despair. Wash begins his story again, for the record, declaring spoilers up front in his narrative and so we know that this will end soon and one could even say end well for the narrator, as he tells us that he is eighteen and free and the events he describes happened before he fled Barbados sailing off into the night, before he met Titch.

A wild ride around the world

Enter Christopher Wilde aka Titch, the new master’s younger brother – naturalist and scientist-in-training under the shadow of his father. Titch is intent on flying his Cloud Cutter, a hydrogen-powered hot air balloon, and what better place to attempt it than from a steep mountain in the family’s plantation in the West Indies? He is quite the enlightened man of the age – well-travelled, futuristic and liberal in the sense that he doesn’t partake of sugar but is happy to use slave sweat and the profit from the plantation to further his scientific endeavours.

Wash, as luck would have it, is the perfect weight to serve as ballast and hence is taken on as Titch’s “assistant”. Titch soon discovers that Wash has a talent in drawing and puts him to work as his scientific illustrator.

Titch and Wash fly off into the night on the Cloud Cutter, but not before the boy’s face is burnt in a hydrogen explosion and he is forced to be the sole witness of an Englishman’s suicide. Titch and Wash take off, only to crash-land the aerostat spectacularly on a trade ship en route to the land of the free, or, well, not so free for Wash.

In Virginia, they meet a necrophilic scientist-sexton who uses graves as underground shelters for runaway slaves and soon, we are taken on another maritime adventure this time to the Arctic in search of the older Mr Wilde, who may or may not be alive. Son meets father and a few pages later, son walks away into the Arctic snowstorm, presumably from life, for reasons not entirely clear.

From this point on, Wash is on his own and he makes a living of sorts in Nova Scotia. He rediscovers his passion and genius for drawing, especially that of marine life, which keeps him sane, and it’s not long before he meets a naturalist and his mixed-race daughter who serves as the love interest. Wash is soon engaged in the making of the first ever aquarium and finds himself in London.

But despite freedom and his relative success, there is still unfinished business in the form of Titch, who, he now knows, is alive. Thus begins another journey from London to Granbourne to Amsterdam and finally to Morocco, where he comes face to face again with the man who saved his life only to abandon him in the cold reaches of the Arctic.

How to write about slavery

The question that springs to mind while reading this heady, globetrotting, genre-defying novel is how far can reality be stretched while dealing with a topic of serious import such as slavery? But the question, however obvious it may seem at first, misses the point of Edugyan’s novel. A work set in a slave plantation in the 1830s could take many successful and equally effective routes – one is that of a documentary, a first-hand narrative such as Twelve Years a Slave, brilliantly dramatised by Steve McQueen in his Oscar-winning production. To a large extent, the first few chapters of Washington Black is a powerful example of this style.

Another is that of escape into a reimagined word such as that of Colson Whitehead’s magical and allegorical The Underground Railroad, which takes his protagonist through a whistle stop through most of history and then a bit more. Edugyan chooses a different path by bringing her tale and her hero into the real world, but a world which in fiction is not usually associated with the oppressed.

She employs the language and the genre of the oppressor and if we find that the struggles of Solomon Northup is transformed into the adventures of Phileas Fogg, it is (arguably) to signal that not only has the protagonist truly escaped his fate but that his narrative has truly arrived in our world. If you, dear reader, can think only of how contrived the plot happens to be when you read of a prodigious slave boy from Barbados who sails and flies his way into continents, that is, well, your problem.

The real question, then, is how successful is Edugyan with her ambitious scope? With some reservations, the novel works. And where it fails, it fails so gloriously that it’s worth reading in any case. What carries the novel, first and foremost, is the quality of writing which is exceptional throughout. Edugyan brings an almost Dickensian realism to the places she takes us – Faith Plantation, Ave Maria, Norfolk, Arctic, Nova Scotia, London, Amsterdam – that one has no time to ponder over the farfetchedness of the plot. Here’s Wash telling us what he saw when he sets out to draw the topography from the mountain:

“But as I surveyed the terrain, a slow feeling was growing in me, a feeling I could not account for. I watched Titch at his exertions. And as I began to draw what I saw with a clean accuracy, I realised I was troubled by the enormous beauty of that place, of the jewel like fields below us, littered as I knew them to be with broken teeth. The hot wind snapped at my papers, and in a kind of ghostly sound beneath this I thought I heard the cry of a baby. For the few women who gave birth here were turned immediately back into the fields, and they would set their tender-skinned newborns down in the furrows to wail against the hot sun. I craned out at the fields; I could see nothing. Far out at sea, a great flock of seagulls rose and turned, the late afternoon light flaring on the undersides of their wings”

In (and of) London, he says:

“And I thought also of Titch still alive somewhere among these green fields of his country, pacing the same London streets with their laughter and dirty-cheeked children, their ill-lit alleyways alive with the bright hiss of rats.”

A question of relationships

If the book stretches our credulity it’s not in the nature of Wash’s adventures, it’s more to do with his own nature. We know from the outset that he is precocious and prodigious, and he was trained and educated for a time by an erudite Englishman and that would leave its mark. But it’s something else to altogether adopt not just the language, the manner and the speech but also the very ideas of the master-teacher in the short time spent in his company.

In one particularly telling passage, Wash meets his nemesis, the bounty hunter who he had been running from all these years. John Willard quotes Aristotle, and Wash tells us: I smiled bitterly. I knew I should better hide my contempt, but the man struck me as ridiculous, beyond fradulent, memorising fine quotations from the Greeks in order to twist their meaning”. If Lord Macaulay were to hear Wash, and it is indeed possible because we are still in the 1830s, he would have been more than proud to see his argument bear fruit so quickly!

Edugyan’s strength, in addition to her writing, is in her portrayal of relationships. At times, it feels like she doesn’t stay with them long enough but this is part of the allure; the relationships are enduring precisely because we don’t see them through fully. Big Kit and Wash, the one that the book opens with is the most promising and is cut short abruptly only to have the reader thinking about it long after the book is read.

Then there are the siblings Erasmus and Titch, who are ostensibly so very different and yet they spend their time punning and ganging up against their cousin. It doesn’t take long for Erasmus to put a bounty on Wash’s head as a way of getting back at Titch, but one cannot say that there is no love between them. The relationship between Titch and the older Mr Wilde is another poignant one, left unfinished by Titch’s sudden departure, and one could go on with this list.

The most interesting relationship is the one central to the book – Wash and Titch – it felt strangely familiar to this reader but it defied definition. Master and slave? Scientist and assistant?

“Tell me, child, have you ever witnessed a harvest moon through a reflector scope?”

Titch asks a bewildered Wash who has just been sent to his accommodation and who is cowering in fright mentally preparing himself for the unspeakable acts he has been warned about. What do you call that relationship where one of the parties not just has vast power over the other but also unsurpassed knowledge, incomprehensible technology, and unspecified guilt from his past that forces him to save and befriend a nobody only to abandon said person and move to the next one without looking back? Doctor! Doctor & Companion. No wonder this relationship has an unfulfilling end. And if Washington Black can move from the world of Solomon Northup to that of Dr Doctor Who and back so effortlessly, then his creator is surely, well, oh brilliant.

Washington Black, Esi Edugyan, Serpent’s Tail.