Friday, August 26, 2016

Microreview [book]: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

A powerful must-read


I’m going to start off this review by admitting to a bias: I once stated aloud “Colson Whitehead is one of our greatest living writers.” I’ve not only read all of his books multiple times, but I also routinely try to force them onto other people. So I might be a little biased when I say that his latest is a great and important and powerful book. But, let’s make this very clear, I’m so ridiculously biased towards Colson Whitehead because he’s such a phenomenally talented writer. Each of his novels, starting with The Intuituonist and going up to Underground Railroad have been drastically different while still being beautifully and excitingly written.

Underground Railroad uses some tropes of genre, including alternated history and fable, to tell the story of Cora. Cora, a slave on a hellish Georgia plantation, decides to try escaping via the Underground Railroad. Here, though, in Whitehead’s intricately re-imagined past, the Railroad is an actual underground railroad, complete with tracks and locomotives. Here is one of the descriptions: “The locomotive was black, an ungainly contraption led by the triangular snout of the cow-catcher, though there would be few animals where this engine was headed.”  Once Cora begins her escape, she goes through a series of places on her way to freedom. The book jacket copy makes an allusion to Gulliver’s Travels and it’s an apt one. This feels like a mythic heroic travel narrative, but one that is grounded in the horrifyingly real.

One of the aspects about the novel that, for me, showed Whitehead’s brilliance the most was how he approached the awfulness of Cora’s situation. He never shies away from violence and the gruesome nature of people, but he also never revels in it. There are no gratuitous moments and, because of that, it is even more deeply shocking and horrific when awful things happen. We, as readers, are not allowed to get inured to what Cora’s life is like.

By the end of this novel, I was not only deeply moved but I also felt like I had been through something. There is beauty in the horrible world of the novel and there is power in Cora’s strength, but the novel also reminds us that we are always only a few steps away from history and from the horror that people can do to one another.

This is a novel that everyone should read. I hope it gains Whitehead all of the acclaim and spotlight that he deserves. I hope it also causes readers to reflect on the world we live in.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 9/10

Bonuses: +1 for gorgeously evocative writing and for using alternative history tropes to such amazing effect

Penalties: None, it's one of the best books I've read in years

Nerd Coefficient: 10/10 "

Reference: Whitehead, Colson. The Underground Railroad [Doubleday, 2016]

POSTED BY: Chloe, speculative fiction fan in all forms, monster theorist, and Nerds of a Feather blogger since 2016.