Reviews

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead | Book Review

I know. You’ve been waiting on this review for quite a while now, haven’t you? I’m sorry it took so long! For some reason, I just kept putting off reading this book.

As you’ll have noticed my January TBR was pretty much abandoned and I went a bit rogue. However, the Diversathon gave me the perfect opportunity to get to this one.

If this is a title you’ve looked into, I’m sure you’ll have noticed the incredible hype surrounding it. I’m always a little cautious when I go into a book with so much buzz, especially one that’s dealing with a sensitive topic such as slavery. I’ve been unlucky in the past and have set my expectations too high, meaning I’ve ended up hating some really popular books. Ultimately, in the case of The Underground Railroad, I think the book was worth the hype. Is it the best book I’ve ever read? No. However, I did find the story gripping and very informative.

With that said, I must profess that this book is for a specific type of reader, and so I understand those of you who found it a little lack lustre. It is neither strongly character nor plot driven, and so may not appeal to some of you out there.

Anyway, I digress, let’s get into the nitty gritty.

I feel like a lot of reviews have gotten hung up on the concept of the railroad itself, when in reality, it’s actually a very small part of the larger story. Yes, the concept of the actual steam-puffing train is interesting and is a point of discussion. However, the book is ultimately the story of slavery, through the eyes of Cora. The steampunk element really isn’t as big a feature as previous reviews had led me to believe. With that in mind, I’m not going to dwell on it any longer.

Instead, let’s talk about our protagonist, Cora. While I was trying to get my thoughts together in order to write this reviews, I took to Goodreads, and found quite a few reviewers who found fault in Cora’s characterisation. I have seen her described as both ‘cookie cutter’ and ’emotionless’. But, I have my own views on this topic. It is true that Cora’s character is not overwhelmed with feeling and emotion, and this could be perceived as a lack of proper character development. However, I ultimately believe this symptom is the cost of her slavery. Born in bondage, and abandoned by her mother, Cora had to become tough in order to survive her circumstance. Therefore, in my mind this lack of emotion makes sense. Personally, I would have had a much bigger problem if Cora had left the plantation and assimilated flawlessly into society. Instead, Cora’s lack of emotion shows how broken she has been by her circumstance and highlights the fact that slavery is not only a state of being, but also a state of mind.

Then, there’s the topic of plot. I think it would be unfair to say that this novel has no plot, as there were clearly recurring characters and a steady development of Cora and her circumstances. However, it was not the true heart of this story. Ultimately, this book transcends the topic of Cora and her journey, and is rather a study of the different ways in which African slaves were abused at this time. The novel begins in the heart of Georgia, moving through South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee and Indiana. Each of these locations brings with it a new set of challenges. Even those states that claimed to be abolitionist had their own way of using the black men and women in their midst. The events of Cora’s escape are ultimately included to facilitate this overview of the country, rather than to propel Cora, and her fictional story, forward.

One part of the novel that I thoroughly enjoyed was Whitehead’s writing. There were some really beautifully moments in this books that I felt made the story incredibly easy to get through, despite its heavy topic. If I had one complaint, it would be the non-linear nature of the timeline, and the lack of warning before a jump in time. However, after a few paragraphs, I’d always found my bearings again so I’m not too worked up about it.

One of my major concerns when starting this book was that it was going to be filled with torture porn. I understand how hard it must be when writing to stay away from this trap, it must be so tempting to utilise unbearable events in order to incite a reaction. In places, I felt this book teetering on the precipice. However, ultimately I thought it was sensitive, Whitehead managed to find a good balance.

One point that I did find particularly interesting was Whitehead’s inclusion of Cora’s own prejudices. I’m having a hard time remembering the exact quote, as I didn’t write it down, for some unknown reason. But there’s a section where Cora sees white children suffering and says something to the effect of; ‘I didn’t feel for them like I do for the negro children’. It was refreshing that Whitehead was able to show this, without making Cora seem callous. It sparks an interesting debate, highlighting that prejudice goes both ways.

Overall, I gave this book 4/5 stars. Maybe, if I was feeling generous, it could scrape a 4.5, but I wouldn’t give it higher than that. The book was easy to read, despite dealing with a difficult topic, and I understand all the hype and the awards that this book has earned. I would definitely recommend to an adult reader who wants to delve into some historical fiction regarding the events of African slavery in America.

Have you read this book? What did you think, fan or foe? Let me know in the comments!

4 thoughts on “The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead | Book Review

  1. Very interesting. I’m glad that your review explained the steampunk vs. historical fiction aspects, because I’ve seen reviews that treated it in either direction and was very confused about what it actually was. It seems like this is closer to literary historical fiction than a science fictional slave narrative. There’s a long backlist at the library right now, so it’ll be a while before I read it.

    Like

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