Voices From the Margins

Anson Ching

Esi Edugyan is known for stitching up her stories with research plucked from the marginalia of history—jazz in 1930s Berlin, the bodily punishments slaves endured on plantations, marine biology in the Victorian era, the construction of early hot air balloons. In her latest novel, Washington Black (Penguin Random House), Edugyan’s narrator is a man looking back on his life, tracing his tale of adventure as a fugitive slave. Initially, the voice of Washington rings with depth as he recalls his early years as a field slave in Barbados, then coming out of the fields and into a new way of understanding the world with the assistance of an abolitionist, Christopher “Titch” Wilde, who teaches him science and how to read. When the story shifts to Washington as an adult, though, the narration clunkily shifts gears. The voice clams shut. Perhaps that is the only kind of Victorian gentleman Edugyan could mold from a freed slave. I was reminded of Stephen Best and Saidiya Hartman’s concept of “fugitive justice.” For Best and Hartman, freed slaves could never be given back their freedom, only a new condition, a new life, one haunted by loss. So instead of taking on the world from a fresh start, Washington dwells in an inward space between pain and justice even as he journeys to far-flung places. This is a powerful point to get across but the tone, unfortunately, reads like a coldly summarized autobiography. Perhaps this is the risk a writer takes in having all the work done by the narrator in their story. And yet, when the strategy works, you can also get something extraordinary. After all, Edugyan also conjured up an unforgettable narrator in Halfblood Blues: Sid Griffiths, whose flaws and baggage transfer onto paper with a richness that impacts and engrosses. Unique voices, then, seem to be the trademark of Edugyan’s craft, and I will take the risk of reading whatever new historical fiction she uncovers in the marginalia.

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