Review: The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

30555488My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Date read: October 14th, 2017

Published by Fleet, 2016.

Verdict: Gutwrenching, important, not without its flaws.

Find it on Goodreads.

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for all the slaves but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned and, though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.

In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven—but the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. Even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.

It took me forever to read this book – it is brilliant, don’t get me wrong, but so exhausting in the terror it depicts. Colson Whitehead uses a very matter-of-fact way to talk about the horrors of slavery (and there were plenty) that makes what happens somehow all the more horrific. It is mesmerising in its cruelty and devastating it its matter-of-factness about the atrocities of slavery.

In this book, the Underground Railroad is just that: a system of railroads underground that help slaves escape. We follow Cora, a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia, on her escape from it and through many different states, each different from the one before but all somehow horrible. Even in the more progressive states you can feel the hatred and the imagined superiority of the white majority. Everything that happens is painfully believable and all the more horrific for it.

Every second chapters deals with a different character; I enjoyed these interludes a lot, as they read like short stories with all the punch that genre can have while also being part of the greater whole of the novel. The chapter focussing on Cora’s mum broke my heart, even more than it had already been broken. I found this device very effective and brilliantly executed.

This is an important book and one that deserves all the accolades it got, but it is also not without its flaws. Cora is a rather flat character even though she is at the core of this novel. I never got a sense for who she is as a person, but then again, this was probably intentional, rendering this girl’s story universal. The importance isn’t that these things happened to her, but that slavery happened to millions of people, many of which have been forgotten.

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