Book Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Anyone paying attention to my weekly reading rundowns of late will know that October and November weren’t exactly stellar reading months. I can’t even remember when I started The Underground Railroad but it was at least the beginning of October. I only finished it last week. Admittedly, I took a quick beak in between so I could read And Then There Were None but still. It took me fucking ages. Not because I didn’t enjoy the book but because I’m such a terrible reader. It’s been a couple of months of work madness and illness. The kind of nights when I’d settle down to read only for my eyes to immediately start to droop. I genuinely never thought I was going to get through it. But I persevered. I mean I had to. This was ‘THE’ book of 2016 and we’re nearing the end of 2017. I couldn’t leave it any longer. Although, having still not read loads of my most anticipated reads of the last 2 years, I guess I could have guessed it was going to be a struggle. One day I’ll learn how real book bloggers do it and get through multiple books a week. Though, I suspect to do that I’d have to give up work. Although, after the day I’ve had, I wouldn’t be dead against that idea.

I’ve not read anything by Colson Whitehead before so I wasn’t really sure what to expect here. I mean I’d heard nothing but amazing things from it. It was near the top of basically every best books list of 2016. Any book that was endorsed by Barack Obama is probably going to be worth checking out, right? It also sounded really amazing; a strange mix of history and fantasy/science fiction that is based on the abolition of slavery. Surely if there was any book that was going to grab someone’s attention then it’s that. Whitehead takes the narrative that we all know and gives it a new spin. The underground railroad was, as we all know, a metaphor for the network of abolitionists who helped slaves escape their captivity. In The Underground Railroad that concept becomes a fully-fledged network of rail tracks that span for miles deep underground. It is both a simple and brilliant idea that manages to bring a sense of wonder and magic to such a harrowing subject.

We are taken on our underground journey along with slave Cora who is encouraged to escape from her vicious owner by a fellow slave, Caesar. The pair find themselves running for their lives and placing their safety in the hands of strangers. After a tense wait, they are quickly ferried away in a rickety old boxcar to start their new lives. The train leaves intermittently so any fleeing slaves are forced to wait and see what their future holds. As they travel between new communities and try to forget the past, the pair are being pursued by a ruthless slave catcher, Ridgeway, who has a personal vendetta with Cora. Or, at least, her mother. Years earlier Cora was abandoned when her mother, Mabel, escaped from the same plantation. Ridgeway was unable to track her down and it is a failure that has haunted him ever since. He vows to make amends by capturing her daughter and returning her to her rightful owner. There is an unending sense of doom throughout this novel even as Cora steams ahead on her journey. It always seems highly unlikely that she will ever be free.
Despite how long it took me, The Underground Railroad was a fantastic read. Whitehead’s prose is beautiful and his descriptions of the railroad itself are spectacular. He has a rare ability to mix fact with fiction without ever ruining the sense of realism. You know there is a lot of artistic license at play here but there is such a strong undercurrent of fact that it always feels possible. The novel isn’t exactly an exploration of slavery and American history as it is a way to recapture the history of slavery. One of the key ideas within the novel is how people remember certain events or, in most cases, remember incorrectly. The topic of black history is so often taken over by white people. It is their description of events that make up the foundation of the past. Whitehead is taking back the history of the black American struggle not by faithfully reconstructing it but by representing it incorrectly. And it is all the more effective and memorable.
My only issue, if I had to admit to one, isn’t actually one to do with the novel itself. I’ve read a lot of reviews praising Colson Whitehead for not holding back. As one review describes he “opens his eyes where the rest of us would look away”. I guess he does but I can’t say that I really found the things he was saying that different to any other slave narrative; I mean aside from the fantastical elements. The novel does a great job of highlighting the plight of the slave and the danger of escaping the clutches of an evil plantation owner. However, it isn’t breaking new ground. Whilst I was studying for my Postgraduate degree I did a module on empire and race in the Romantic period so I had to read a fair few first hand accounts of people who were kidnapped and sold as slaves. The Underground Railroad is, for the most part, just another account like this but, really, less realistic. A lot of people I’ve seen on Instagram have said this was a difficult read because it was so harrowing: I have to disagree. I think, for the most part, the violence is underplayed or glossed over.
I’m not saying it’s a bad novel or not worth reading but I can’t agree with the people who believe it is breaking down boundaries. It’s not the happiest read but it’s also not the most gratuitous. Not that I’d want it to be torture porn or anything. It handles the conditions of slavery with a deft hand and that’s a good thing. However, it is in no way a comparison to the real-life accounts you could read. What Whitehead does it open a dialogue about slavery and the the reaction to race in the modern world. His themes are all very relevant today and throughout history. You can see it in the way he alludes to classic literature and modern events. He uses the backdrop of slavery and one young woman’s situation to show us a deeper truth. But it’s not a truth about slavery. That’s been available to see for years… just not written inside a novel.

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