Vic­to­ria-based nov­el­ist Esi Edugyan’s lat­est book is al­ready nom­i­nated for three ma­jor awards.

The Georgia Straight - - Contents - By David Chau

Some 15 years ago, while read­ing “The Im­prob­a­ble Im­poster Tom Cas­tro”, a Jorge Luis Borges short story, Esi Edugyan found her­self struck by its drama and in­trigue. Trac­ing a rube tricked into mas­querad­ing as the de­ceased scion of the wealthy Tich­borne clan, the plot, Edugyan be­lieved, was the Ar­gen­tine writer’s in­ven­tion.

A visit, years later, to the Na­tional Por­trait Gallery in Lon­don, where Edugyan had trav­elled when her 2011 novel, Half-blood Blues, was a fi­nal­ist for the Man Booker Prize, of­fered a rev­e­la­tion. Walk­ing through the halls with her hus­band, the poet and nov­el­ist Steven Price, Edugyan was shocked to see nu­mer­ous im­ages of in­di­vid­u­als who’d been in­volved in what was the real-life Tich­borne trial.

The 19th-cen­tury in­ci­dent per­sisted in her imag­i­na­tion through the fol­low­ing years, af­ter the Vic­to­ria-based au­thor won the Sco­tia­bank Giller Prize for Half-blood Blues, which fea­tured black jazz mu­si­cians in Europe dur­ing World War II. Near the end of 2014, jug­gling the de­mands of writ­ing and par­ent­hood, she be­gan fo­cus­ing on a novel in­spired by the case.

In par­tic­u­lar, she wanted to ex­plore it “through the eyes of An­drew Bogle, who was one of the main wit­nesses for the de­fence, and was an ex-slave who’d been stolen away from a plan­ta­tion in the Caribbean by a mem­ber of the Tich­borne clan.

“But then, when I was tack­ling that ma­te­rial and writ­ing it,” Edugyan says, reached by the Straight in Vic­to­ria, “I started to re­al­ize I was more in­ter­ested in the mind­set—in the psy­chol­ogy of some­body like Bogle, but who wasn’t ac­tu­ally Bogle him­self, and didn’t have any­thing to do with the trial.”

Cur­rently nom­i­nated for the Booker, the Giller, and the Rogers Writ­ers’ Trust Fic­tion Prize, Edugyan’s third novel, Wash­ing­ton Black, de­liv­ers a com­ing-of-age tale that is her finest work yet. Here, George Wash­ing­ton Black, “Wash” as he is known, is plucked from the fields of a Bar­ba­dos plan­ta­tion to as­sist Christo­pher “Titch” Wilde, an English gen­tle­man sci­en­tist and abo­li­tion­ist, who hap­pens to be the brother of the sadis­tic plan­ta­tion owner.

Un­der Titch’s tute­lage, the young Wash, who was born and raised on the plan­ta­tion, dis­cov­ers an in­nate tal­ent for il­lus­tra­tion and starts to de­velop his per­son­hood. A fa­tal event, how­ever, sev­ers the rel­a­tive re­lief, prompt­ing Wash and Titch to flee in Titch’s Cloud-cut­ter, a hot-air bal­loon, on an ad­ven­ture that leads Wash from Bar­ba­dos, across North Amer­ica in­clud­ing the Arc­tic, and on to the United King­dom and Africa.

The novel, ac­cord­ing to Edugyan, is “re­ally about his search for a sense of per­sonal agency. But it’s also about him re­ally look­ing to live a free life. He has to first of all de­cide what that is, and weigh that against what he’s been told from var­i­ous quar­ters. And then he has to re­de­fine that for him­self.

“Through all of this, he’s some­body who feels a grand sense of root­less­ness,” she con­tin­ues. “He’s al­ways search­ing for his place in the world. And so it only seemed nat­u­ral for the book to be mov­ing through var­i­ous set­tings.”

This idea of dis­lo­ca­tion pat­terns Edugyan’s ma­te­rial. (Her 2004 de­but novel, The Sec­ond Life of Sa­muel Tyne, de­tailed a former civil ser­vant who moves his fam­ily from Cal­gary to an in­her­ited prop­erty in ru­ral Al­berta; her 2014 vol­ume of nonfiction, Dream­ing of Else­where: Ob­ser­va­tions on Home, re­lated her thoughts on the sub­ject as the Cana­dian-born daugh­ter of Ghana­ian im­mi­grants.) All her books, she sug­gests, are about how the past grips the present, how his­to­ries are never far.

As the years draw on, Wash re­mains aware of a bounty on his head and haunted by the mem­ory of the de­parted Titch. Even though his cir­cum­stances have shifted, he ob­serves, “My cur­rent life, I re­al­ized, was con­structed around an ab­sence; for all its rich­ness I still felt as if the floors might give way, as if its core were only a cov­er­ing of leaves, and I would slip through, fall­ing end­lessly, never again to get my foot­ing.”

The metic­u­lously paced novel fur­ther demon­strates Edugyan’s skill at con­vey­ing the mag­ni­tude of a life—its piv­otal joys and dis­il­lu­sion­ments— and broaches the di­vide be­tween phys­i­cal and psy­chic free­dom. “Just be­cause you’re free in body,” Edugyan says, “does not mean that you’re emo­tion­ally free.”

De­spite her ac­co­lades, Edugyan is prag­matic about lit­er­ary fame. She writes in se­crecy, in a home of­fice with an oc­ca­sion­ally used tread­mill desk, and dis­cusses her projects only with her hus­band un­til they’re com­pleted.

The re­cent at­ten­tion “is a great gift—and it can be an elu­sive gift— so it’s mar­vel­lous to have a spot­light on you. And it’s a good thing to have read­ers,” she says. “That’s why you’re writ­ing—so peo­ple will read it.”

His­tory is ever-present in Esi Edugyan’s lat­est novel , Wash­ing­ton Black, now up for a list of lit­er­ary prizes rang­ing from the Giller to the Booker.

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