The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad is the story of Cora, a slave on a cotton plantation, who escapes using the Underground Railroad. But this is not the Railroad of safe houses and hiding places which really existed: this is an actual, physical railroad, going through the Southern states and up to the North. The novel follows Cora through her escape, as she flees a terrifying slave catcher and travels through several states.

I’ve seen a lot of criticism of the characterisation of this novel, and while it is true that Cora is distant, that we never really feel like we’re getting to know her, this is the way she is with other characters in the novel. It’s not that she’s underdeveloped, it’s that we’re deliberately kept at arm’s length. It is probably true that we never really get inside any of the character’s heads, which I assume is intended to make the experiences more general. The problem is that I wasn’t all that invested in Cora as an individual. Obviously I was rooting for her, but more because you automatically root for a slave to be free than because I felt any particular attachment to her as an individual.

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I can’t say I enjoyed this book: it’s violent and harrowing and everything else that you would expect from a slave narrative, but it is bloody beautifully written, and very impactful. The Guardian review of it talks about it wearing its research lightly, which is a description which definitely rings true. Although there is clearly a huge weight of information and history underlying the plot, it doesn’t overwhelm the events of the story. I personally think that writing this way requires an incredible amount of skill.

The central conceit of the novel, the reimagining of the Railroad, is an interesting one. When I finished it, I still couldn’t put my finger on exactly why Whitehead had made the choice to do that, unless it was simply a gimmick. Honestly, I didn’t really see that the Railroad being real made any difference to the narrative, and I still feel that way. However, upon reflection I think that the intention behind it is to render the incredible effort and sacrifice that went into the railroad in the most impactful way possible. There’s a passage  where Cora looks out at the walls of the tunnel passing by and thinks of the black hands which built it, and I think that passage is the key to understanding the whole novel. It’s a literal depiction of the courage and risk required for a slave to escape. Realising this made the whole novel much more impactful for me.

It’s a powerful and important book, but no less of a page turner because of the weight it carries.


January in Review

Normally, the start of the year is a bit of a slump for me, reading wise. I really struggle to get into anything. But this year, I’ve been going through books like absolutely nobody’s business, finishing what I think is a pretty impressive total of nine books, three of which I smashed through in a single weekend.

  1. Acceptance – Jeff VanderMeer
    For me, this was better than book 2 of the Southern Reach trilogy, but not quite up to the standard of the first one. I’ve reviewed the entire series here.
  2. The Bricks that Built the Houses – Kate Tempest
    I love Kate Tempest, this is B E A U T I F U L. It’s flawed though.
  3. The Good Immigrant – edited by Nikesh Shukla
    Yes yes yes. Read it. I don’t want to review this because it feels reductive to review something this important.
  4. Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders
    This book is fucking incredible. Review coming soon, but suffice to say that I have never read anything like this and you should read it the moment it comes out.
  5. The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead
    A really interesting read, definitely worth a look. I want more people I know to read it so that I can discuss why they think the central conceit is there.
  6. A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness
    I wanted to reread this before I saw the film, but on reflection I don’t think I had read it before. I went for the illustrated edition and Jim Kay is wonderful as ever. I liked it,  but I think I’ll like the film more.
  7. Cove – Cynan Jones
    This is less than a hundred pages long, but it does an incredible amount in those pages. Another one where the review is coming soon.
  8. Wishful Drinking – Carrie Fisher
    I mean, I don’t think I need to explain why I read this now. It’s great, and I would definitely recommend going for the audiobook.
  9. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman
    Another one that isn’t out yet, this is a great book. A lot of the reviews I’ve seen have talked about how great the central character is, but personally I loved the arc much more than her. Review soon!

The Bricks that Built the Houses by Kate Tempest

This was one of my enormous collection of unread books for a really shamefully long time, given that I pre-ordered it about a month in advance of its release last April. In the meantime, I actually bought and read another one of her books, Let Them Eat Chaos. Honestly my book buying habits are ridiculous and I can’t explain myself.

The reason I preordered it (apart from a genuine adoration of her work) was that the Nottingham branch of Rough Trade was hosting a Q&A with Kate Tempest, and the way to get into the event was to preorder the book. They do this with albums a lot, if you preorder the vinyl you get access to a gig, but I’ve never known them to do it with a book before. It was a fantastic event, and made me more inspired than I have been in a long time to write and create. Kate Tempest is a fantastic speaker, eloquent and intelligent and funny, and her reading of the book’s first few pages was fantastic. I got home that night and immediately started reading it, and then proceeded to put it down for eight months.

I did finally get to it, by making it one of the limited number of books I took to my parents’ house over the Christmas break, and I do regret leaving it for so long. I love Kate Tempest’s writing, it is frequently dazzling, and I love writing in which the beauty of the language takes centre stage. She is a constant poet, even in her prose, and as a fan of her work I would have been disappointed had she not been.

For me, the flaw in the book was its pacing. It’s a pretty dramatic plot about drug deals and heists and enormous sums of money, but its anchored by intimate moments between family, friends, potential and actual lovers. All of that is great, but the problem is that every time a new one of the pretty sizeable cast of characters is introduced, you get a multi-generational backstory, which causes the plot and the interactions to screech to a halt. The technique is effective in building up a picture of South London over decades, of the people who make it up, but it’s frustrating when you’re reading. I like books with very little plot, and I like pacy books, but this sort of feels like it has taken bits of both, and it doesn’t quite work.

I do love the characters though, and the descriptions of the moments that they share. I was talking to a friend about it who found it rather self-conscious and overwritten, which maybe it is, but I think that’s what makes it brilliant. It is a little messy, it could probably be a little tighter, a little better edited, but it’s also joyful and beautiful and enthusiastic in a way that not a lot of prose is.