Sunday, 16 October 2016

REVIEW: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad
Opening a book that has arrived with serious fanfare is always, for me at least, a combination of excitement and trepidation. Excitement, because I do love reading exciting new fiction. And trepidation as I worry that the book itself may not live up to the hype, especially when that hype train has been set in motion by the mother of all book promos, The Oprah Book Club. Fortunately, I need not have worried because 'The Underground Railroad' is an amazing novel. Difficult, brutal, complex and meditative but amazing through and through.

The novel follows Cora, a slave on a Georgia cotton plantation who is an outcast even amongst her fellow slaves. Reduced to sharing space in Hob with fellow outcast women, Cora is struggling with her emerging womanhood and the implications of her own mother's abandonment when she is approached by Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, who tells her about the Underground Railroad and his daring plan for escape. As she follows Caesar into the unknown, Cora knows she is escaping from a life of punishing labour but she cannot prepare for the hardships that await her as she makes her towards her new life.

It's very hard to summarise this book in a few paragraphs because Cora's journey encompasses so much. From the brutal hardships of plantation life to the temporary respite of a southern farmstead, her journey encompasses many versions of the American south and provides a real picture of the complexity of opinion regarding people of colour in the pre-civil war era. When civil rights are taught at school (especially in British schools), the American Civil War is  often made out to be a cut off point - the moment at which civil rights and the struggle for freedom took flight. 'The Underground Railroad' presents a much more varied portrait of the nation, moving through the terrifying brutality of the slave-owning states to the insidious schemes hiding behind some so-called 'progressive' movements and the genuine wish for change within other corners of society. It's quite an eye-opener and, at times, very difficult to read but also extremely rewarding.

Another strength of the novel is the characters. Cora is tough - she's had to be all her life - so she's not an instantly likeable lead. Instead she is a rounded human being, who struggles with her heart and her head and who you really become attached to as the novel progresses. Likewise, Ridgeway - the slave catcher who doggedly pursues Cora and Caesar - is a reprehensible human being in many aspects but he is, throughout, a human being. The passages of conversation between Ridgeway and Cora were, for me, some of the most accomplished in the novel as they really drew on richness of both characters and made the entwining of their fates even more compelling.

One of the defining features of the hype surrounding this novel has been the fact that Whitehead has envisaged the underground railroad as an actual railroad - with stations and conducters, tracks and carriages. This is, indeed, ingenious but, for me, it was almost incidental. Cora's story seems so true that the fact that the railroad is semi-fantastical almost doesn't register - it feels as real and as truthful to reality as the rest of the narrative. And that, for me, was the defining sense of this novel - a reality that has been encapsulated for the reader wholly. Whilst you're reading this book, you are living Cora's story and following each step on her journey for better or for worse. It is a real accomplishment and an excellent novel that I would highly recommend.

'The Underground Railroad' by Colson Whitehead is published by Fleet (Little Brown) and is available in hardback and ebook formats now from all good bookstores and online retailers. My thanks go to the publisher and to NetGalley for the opportunity to read an advance copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

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