Book Review 7 – The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

There are of course all sorts of books in the world. The flirty, easy reads that are devoured on summer getaways; gritty crime novels that keep commuters turning pages on packed trains; emotive roller coasters where you dive into the mind of the protagonist; literary heavyweights with awe inspiring imagery and language, the list goes on. I would perhaps pick up any of these before selecting a book about slavery. Not because I don’t think it’s important to understand more about this dark time in human history, but more because many years ago I read the unforgettable, Roots by Alex Haley.

It was one of those books that you can’t wrench your eyes from, despite the abject misery that you are confronted with. The fact that human beings are capable of such horrific cruelty sat heavily with me. And whilst I can’t remember the details of the book all these years later, the residue of that feeling (horror, sadness, shame?) is still nestled inside my brain somewhere, to the extent that when the BBC recently put on an adaptation of Roots, I knew two things. The first, that it would be a brilliantly made, unmissable programme; the second, that there was absolutely no way that I could bring myself to watch it.  No way that I could witness the subjugation and degradation of innocent people. Even if it is a fictionalised re-creation. It happened. The fact that it happened here on the soil that we walk on deeply saddens me.

So when I rocked up at the recent Croydon Literature Festival, and found The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead prominently displayed at a stall, I hesitated. A book about a slave who decides to escape from her bondage… was this the kind of book that I could read without it haunting me for the rest of my days? Wasn’t reading supposed to be enjoyable? How could I enjoy reading something so tragic?

There were a couple of things that tempted me. I am a sucker for prize winners and nominees and The Underground Railroad is peppered with them: winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, winner of the National Book Award, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, a Sunday Times top ten best seller – my fingers are getting worn out just typing the list of Whitehead’s accolade’s for this book. On top of this, I was listening to some podcast or other before the Booker’s shortlist was announced and the presenters were so sure that he was going to be shortlisted. As it happens he wasn’t but then you can’t win everything all of the time. The nominations and prize winnings suggested that this was no ordinary book, and difficult subject matter or not, I just had to bite the bullet and read it.

Perhaps it was because I had primed myself for it, or maybe because I’m no longer the naive young grasshopper I once was, but The Underground Railroad didn’t leave me with the same electric sense of shock that Roots had done many years ago. Whitehead doesn’t dilly-dally over the treatment of slaves, but neither does he linger. In one sense this makes it worse. It gives you the impression that the maltreatment of slaves was so commonplace, their misery so ubiquitous that there was scarcely time to draw breath before you were on to the next atrocity.

In The Underground Railroad we follow Cora who flees captivity and stumbles from one place of seeming refuge to another. Everything is in flux for Cora and those who seek to assist her. The prospect of a merciless death, should they be caught, lurks around every corner and bares it’s teeth any time Cora or her friends get too comfortable. Every time they think that there is a better life, a chance, a place of opportunity; the violence that they are fleeing rears it’s head to remind them, I’m still here, I’m still hunting you down.

Some other tough reads – what are yours?

For me, whilst the central story-line was great, I felt there was a lot of surplus information about the numerous peripheral characters. Cora would often refer back to a character that had helped in some earlier part of her journey and I found myself struggling to remember which particular act of benevolence they had bestowed. But overall, and despite my initial reservations, I enjoyed the book. It got me thinking, perhaps I have been too hasty in dismissing a book just because it might make me feel uncomfortable. Is there a world of literature that I am missing out on because of it? I’m interested to know your experiences. What has been the hardest book you ever read? And if you could go back in time and make the choice would you put yourself through the experience of reading it again?

I look forward to hearing your tales and I’ll see you here again next week when I’ll be reviewing I Am, I Am, I Am, by Maggie O’Farrell. I’m chomping at the bit to tell you about that one, but it’ll have to keep till next Monday!

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