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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Thoughts and Predictions: Man Booker Prize 2017

This year I tried to read as many books on the Man Booker Prize longlist as possible. That did not work out all that well, to nobody’s surprise. I am such a fickle reader and do really really bad with TBRs. I do, however, have some thoughts I want to share before the winner is announced.

Books I have read:

Swing Time – Zadie Smith

This is my least favourite of the books I read. It’s not a bad book by a long shot but I expected more.

You can find my review here.

The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

It took me forever to read this book. It is gut-wrenchingly devastating and the matter-of-fact way the story is told made is all the more so. I could only ever take it in small doses. It’s beyond a doubt an important book that deserves all the accolades it got, but I am so very glad it’s over.To be fair, this is what a book about slavery should be like.

4 3 2 1 – Paul Auster

I enjoyed this a whole lot and was very glad to see it on the shortlist. I loved how expansively Auster tells his story – and this in a genre where I usually prefer shorter works.

You can find my review here.

Exit West – Mohsin Hamid

I would read Mohsin Hamid’s shopping list. He has a wonderful way with words and I adored how lyrical his expressions are. In a way this is the direct opposite of “The Underground Railroad” – both use a supernatural way of escaping evil (war and slavery respectively), but Hamid’s work is ultimately optimistic whereas Whitehead’s is … really not.

You can find my review here.

Solar Bones – Mike McCormack

This was definitely my favourite of the bunch and I was super disappointed to not see it on the short list. I adored a whole lot about this book. This is one that I probably would not have read if it wasn’t for the longlist and I am very grateful that I did.

You can find my review here.

Currently reading

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Autumn – Ali Smith

I am about half way through this book and while I enjoy it, I am not quite sure if I understand everything. I adore her musings on Brexit and find this to be an absolute strength of the book. I lived in Scotland for four years and in England for one and I feel close to the country. So Brexit hit me hard; I did not see it coming and I still cannot understand how it happened.

To Be Read

Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders33290527

This is the last book of the longlist that I will definitely read at some point. It might be gimmicky or it might be great, I cannot imagine there will be a middle ground.

 

 

 

Predictions

I think in the end either Ali Smith or Mohsin Hamid will take home the prize, both books are timely and well-written and mostly great. I have my fingers crossed for Hamid because I think we need more fundamentally optimistic books about immigration and refugees.