Washington Black by Esi Edugyan review – out of slavery in a hot-air balloon

A slave becomes a brilliant scientific illustrator in a novel whose plot twists generate a rich, if uneven, mythic world

Certain subjects may feel daunting for even the most ambitious novelists: the Holocaust is one of them, slavery surely another. But Esi Edugyan’s ambition is extraordinary. Her 2011 novel Half Blood Blues centred on a black musician incarcerated in Sachsenhausen concentration camp; her new one, longlisted for the Man Booker prize, is narrated by the eponymous Washington Black, who starts his life as a slave on a plantation in Barbados.

Many writers and film-makers are delving into the subject of slavery, and each one has to find their own way through a thicket of moral choices. Edugyan has clearly thought about the importance of showing how victims of brutality remain human in the face of constant inhumanity. Big Kit, for instance, a mother figure to Black, is the object ...