Book Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

22/09/2016 12:34

Reading about the past is one of my favourite...(cough!) past times. I love to read about tales of the human struggle, how people were pitted against the cruelty of the power hungry, blood thirsty psychopaths that have dominated the ranks of the elite for eons; Just because their ancestor had the biggest stick.

It's a pity that most of the stories you find from the non-fiction history shelves are about their struggles, how they conquered and controlled, what they took and the lives they enslaved. Its rare you see a metaphor taken from history and turned into fiction like the Underground Railroad, the new novel by Colson whitehead.


It's a clever idea, one that any novelist would have thanked their lucky stars to have come up with, regardless of how tricky it must have been to tackle. Novels normally contain the metaphors of the message that they're trying to get us to understand, not the other way around.

Although fiction, the life of teenage slave Cora is a very real, graphic yet beautiful tale. It's extreme, with many images of mass murder, rape and violence, offering an uncomfortable window to a time where the wicked appetites of men were realised. After fleeing from her plantation, Cora and her friend Caesar attempt to gain freedom only to have that tested by a zealous slave hunter, out to remedy his failure at catching her mother, who evaded him years prior.

It is within this game of cat and mouse that Whitehead reveals the core of his story. At first it is difficult to see past the gore and truths of the time, but the human kindness and how that, in spite of all the troubles then and now, are at the centre of what it means to be human. It showcases human endurance, reminding us of the pain people would suffer in order to have the lives that we take for granted. You will leave the book feeling a sense of gratitude.

Colson does well in reminding us of the sacrifices made by people like Cora, and although fictional, you just can't help feel her pain. That is mostly thanks to Whitehead's beautiful storytelling and his passion for the character he's created. As I read it, I noticed that Colson knew Cora somehow, perhaps she was a mixture of a few different people from his life? You really get a sense that Cora is family to him and this made the prose even more emotive. He dips you in and out of time periods like an unbound spectre, showing you the past events that matter to his characters struggles and then bringing you back to their tired shoulders. Normally when this happens in stories I struggle to keep track, but due to his mastery at physic focus, Whitehead keeps you engaged the entire time; Unbeknown to him, his name must appear at the top of many dinner party lists!

The real Underground Railroad was a metaphor for the people and places, that slaves would use in order to escape and gain freedom. But just as this story makes clear, it was a gruesome endeavour, one that showcased humans at their best and absolute worst.

The Underground Railroad is published by Fleet and available to buy in all good book shops.