Thanks to Esi Edugyan’s fine novel, Washington Black, I can vividly imagine what life was like on a Barbados sugar cane plantation in the bad old days. George Washington Black was excellent company and together we travelled to the icy waters of the Canadian Arctic, where blocks of ice provided the only protection from the elements. Towards the end of the novel we found ourselves in the unbearable heat of the Moroccan desert, the sudden nightfall bringing with it an uncomfortable chill in the air.
The reality is that I rarely venture far from home. Holidays on the Costa del Sol don’t call out to me nor does the thought of skiing down icy white slopes. My adventuring is done through the pages of a book, for which pleasure I don’t even have to pack a bag, nor weigh it, nor pray it will squeeze in the overhead locker without attracting undue attention of vigilant flight attendants before squeezing myself into the middle seat — oh why is it always the middle seat!
The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason brought home to me what life must have been like during the First World War for soldiers who were hardly more than boys when they were shipped off to defend their country. The landscape was mulched to a squelchy sticky mud by thousands of marching feet inching towards an ignominious death. Nowadays we can distance ourselves from the uncomfortable reality of mortally wounding our enemies; back then combat was so close soldiers could look directly into the faces of their enemy to find a mirror of themselves — young men not yet ready to die.
Lucius, the protagonist of this story, was training to be a doctor when war broke out. In his innocence he signed up with but two aims: to gain experience under the direction of highly skilled military medical personnel, and to escape the close scrutiny of a family anxious for him to be married him to a young lady from the same social class. Lucius escaped the clutches of his overbearing family but was aghast to discover that the most experienced doctor in his first and only posting was himself. Typhoid had ravaged this desolate outpost killing many of the patients and driving away all but one of the medical staff, leaving the formidable Sister Margarete in sole charge. And now there are two of them, only one of whom can wield a scalpel with any degree of confidence.
In that first novel I understood something of what it felt like to endure the life of an indentured slave on a sugar plantation, to experience the Arctic cold and the minimal comfort of an igloo, and the sweltering heat of Morocco, the air scented with pungent spices. The second novel sent me back to a time when medicine was in its infancy and traumatised soldiers were patched up and sent back to the front as soon as they were able to walk through mud, mud, inglorious mud.
My life-long passport to other times and places is the ability to read and live a thousand lives through the printed word and I extend an invitation to you, Dear Reader, for your company on these, and many more literary journeys.