Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Book Review: The Underground Railway by Colson Whitehead

I try so hard to read good books, worthy books and books that I will learn from.  But sometimes I just need a book that will grab me and take me out of the world and refuse to let go.  In other words a good story that I have to drop everything for.  The cover of The Underground Railway says “Winner of the National Book Award” and “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2017”.  In the past the grand titles have meant that a book is likely to be worthy, but no guarantee that it is interesting enough to hold my often goldfish level attention.

The Underground Railway tells the story of a young woman called Cora from a cotton plantation in Georgia who decides to try and escape the utter misery and horror of life as a slave.  We follow her on her journey, with a slave catcher in pursuit.  The book doesn’t hold back when describing the horrific treatment of slaves at every step of their life.  It also throws light on the plight of freed men and women, who despite not being slaves are completely at the mercy of the whims of white people of the time.

The book highlights the thinking of the time that stated non-whites were inferior, barely human and even sinful (from the biblical story of Ham), requiring control and discipline or punishment from white people.  Even those who are considered to be comparatively sympathetic are shown to treat black people as subjects of ridicule of experimentation.

On her journey Cora also provides us with a window into the other forms of persecution of the time, whether medical experiments, arbitrary violence against black people, or the “clearing” of whole towns of any black people through public lynching’s.

The Underground Railway is written in clear, forceful prose.  The writer often builds up tension and suspense and then resolves it so suddenly and quickly that within a sentence the awful has happened, barely leaving you time to feel the full horror of  a situation. 

Cora is a complex protagonist, veering from thinking deeply about her situation only to dismiss it to being driven by a profound anger at her situation.  Interestingly, she never buys into the negative narrative about her race and situation.  She is always crystal clear that there has been an injustice against her race and that they are deserving of  justice and freedom, that the slave owners and sympathisers are the sinners and


The book moves from brutal scenes of violence to contemplative passages, meditating on the situation of the people.  Colson Whitehead’s writing and the themes of this book reminded me of the books of Tony Morrison, one of my favourite writers: moving, often painful to read, leaving you brimming with anger at the injustices brought down on generations of people in the name of money and justified through both religion and science.  Part polemic, part history lesson, this is a fascinating and engaging story, I think I will keep hold of this book for my children to read.




No comments:

Post a Comment