Review: The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

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The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead
Release Date: 06/10/2016 (UK)
Publisher: Fleet (Little Brown Book Group)
Pages: 320pp RRP: £14.99 (Hardback)
Kindle edition available here (£7.99)

Colson Whitehead has been woefully understocked in many British bookshops for some time, despite a career filled with great novels and essays, numerous awards (including receiving the MacArthur Fellowship in 2002), teaching at major American universities, and writing for the New York Times Magazine. Fortunately, it now seems that with the release of The Underground Railroad, Whitehead’s audience should soon grow yet further.

In his latest novel, Whitehead employs his ability to shift seamlessly between genres to full effect by taking the historical network of abolitionists that helped to smuggle slaves out of the southern United States, and transforms it into a literal subterranean railroad. We’re introduced to this concept through the journey of Cora, a young slave whose story begins with her living out a hellish existence on a particularly brutal Georgia plantation, where the thought of escape is on everyone’s mind. We’re introduced to Cora via two other characters: Ajarry, taken from her village in West Africa and across the Atlantic on a slave ship; and Mabel, Ajarry’s daughter, who flees the plantation, leaving behind her daughter, Cora – a woman who has only ever known an existence solely tied to the plantation. When fellow slave Caesar discusses escaping the plantation, Cora begins a journey that has her swept along the aforementioned railroad, all the while pursued by slave catchers, and set against a backdrop of nineteenth-century America populated by grave robbers, conflicted abolitionists, deeply sinister doctors and night riders. With each stop on the journey, the individual states present a horrific front – be it North Carolina’s decision to expel the black population from its lands, or South Carolina’s seemingly benevolent approach (and utterly sinister) to what it dubs the ‘negro problem’.

Even when the narrative encounters a moment of stillness, Whitehead doesn’t let the reader draw breath. It’s at these points that Cora feels most vulnerable, that she could be betrayed to slave catchers or a baying mob. Her time spent hiding in an attic at one stop (where several observers have noted similarities to Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl) is a particularly tense sequence, as Cora can hear the goings-on amongst the townsfolk, and their twisted favourite pastime.

Whitehead’s deliberate use of antiquated prose and detailed description grant the narrative a brutally affecting texture. With nods to classics such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a clear demonstration and precise application of thorough research, and a precise sharpness accompanying his writing style, he’s able to present the full horror of his subject matter which can at times be genuinely painful to read, and yet amazing to behold. With parallels drawn to the Native American genocide (which the reader could also interpret as a commentary on America’s current racial crisis),

One particularly interesting element of the narrative is the use of the interval chapters, where the author pauses to examine other characters, such as the escaped slave Caesar or the deeply creepy Stevens the bodysnatcher. I personally found the character of Ridgeway, the slave catcher who doggedly pursues Cora, to be horrifyingly fascinating. Whilst he is fully prepared to talk to his quarry as his (almost) intellectual equal, he goes to great pains to remind them he views them as nothing more than someone’s property (such as addressing other targets of his pursuit as ‘it’). His world view focuses around the need to protect ‘the American spirit, the one that called us from the Old World to the New, to conquer and build and civilise. And destroy that what needs to be destroyed. To lift up the lesser races. If not lift up, subjugate. And if not subjugate, exterminate. Our destiny by divine prescription – the American imperative,’ and through this he becomes obsessed with recapturing Cora. It’s in these smaller chapters that Whitehead shows us how these individuals came to be where they are and view the world as they do – and how they have been shaped into doing this, whilst importantly never stripping them of their agency.

The narrative slowly builds to a grand crescendo, where the grand allegorical nature of the novel is at its most affecting. After stripping away the idealised image of America of the time in order to expose ‘a delusion, the grandest one of all’, Whitehead leaves the reader with a small glimmer of hope – a light at the end of the tunnel. And at the end of that journey, I was all the more grateful for him showing us along the track. He’s written what is easily one of the best novels I’ve read this year – entertaining, moving, and something that stays with you long after finishing it (as it should). I cannot recommend this book enough.

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