“A thrilling, genre-bending tale of escape from slavery in the American deep south that contains extraordinary prose and uncomfortable home truths”
“The Underground Railroad begins on a particularly vicious Georgia plantation, where all anyone wants to do is escape. “Every slave thinks about it. In the morning and in the afternoon and in the night. Dreaming of it. Every dream a dream of escape even when it didn’t look like it.” We meet Ajarry, taken from her West African village and across the ocean on a slave ship. We meet her daughter, Mabel, who flees the plantation and its odious owner, Randall, prompting a wild and fruitless search, and Cora, Mabel’s daughter, our heroine.
“This beginning of the novel strikes two clear chords. First, it draws on traditional slave testimonies by the likes of Solomon Northup and Harriet Jacobs. This is a book that wears its research lightly, but the subtly antique prose and detailed description combine to create a world that is entirely convincing. In this opening section there are also nods to more recent influences: Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, in particular. A familiar visual and linguistic idiom has developed by which novelists and film-makers address the subject of slavery. The first 70 pages of The Underground Railroad are beautifully written and painful to read, but there is a sense of having been here before. Then everything changes.
“Cora, deciding to flee with Caesar, a fellow slave, finds herself swept into the great secret undertaking that is the underground railroad. And here is the spark that ignites the novel. For Whitehead has taken that historical metaphor – the network of abolitionists who helped ferry slaves out of the south – and made it into a glistening, steampunk reality. Cora and Caesar are led through a trapdoor and down to a subterranean platform where rails stretch away into darkness. A train pulls up, heading north. It’s a brilliant conceit, and from this point forwards, the book takes on a visionary new life. Whitehead has always been one of those authors who move effortlessly between genres, as at home in the rigorously researched historical fiction of John Henry Days as he was in the futuristic zombie world of Zone One. Here, it’s as if he’s attempting to cram as many genres into one novel as possible, with science fiction meeting fantasy and a picaresque adventure tale, all against the backdrop of a reimagined 19th-century America.
“The narrative then doesn’t draw breath as Cora is pursued by the malevolent slave catcher Ridgeway, whom we first meet attended by “a fearsome Indian scout who wore a necklace of shrivelled ears”. Ridgeway has as his life’s mission the need to defend “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.”
“Cora rises from the underground railway into a world of bodysnatchers, night riders, sinister doctors, heroic station agents, conflicted abolitionists. She finds love, loses it, is happy for brief snatches of time before the remorseless Ridgeway catches up with her, and she must flee again. There’s something Thomas Pynchon-like about the novel, but without Pynchon’s desiccating distance, his endless tangents. Everything in Whitehead’s narrative is honed to scintillating sharpness.
“Alongside the tumultuous intermingling of genres, there’s a distinct allegorical flavour to Cora’s journey. Each state she emerges into appears to present a new face of the horrors of slavery. South Carolina, with its skyscrapers redolent of Alan Moore’s From Hell, and its seemingly benevolent approach to “the negro problem”, is hiding dark secrets beneath its pristine exterior.
“It’s at the end of the novel, though, that the allegorical mode is felt most strongly. It’s to Whitehead’s credit that he never strikes too hard on the parallels between America’s current racial crisis and the material of his story (although the reader can often think of nothing else). Instead, the author looks backwards, to a previous genocide – the massacre of Native Americans – and seeks to show that, as one character puts it, “America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes – believes with all its heart – that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft and cruelty.” The book’s final pages, which are almost unbearably poignant, seem to offer a model of resistance, a small gleam of hope.
“I haven’t been as simultaneously moved and entertained by a book for many years. This is a luminous, furious, wildly inventive tale that not only shines a bright light on one of the darkest periods of history, but also opens up thrilling new vistas for the form of the novel itself.”
Winning the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, this novel has achieved possibly the highest accolade, but is it a deserving winner? Without reading the dozens of other contenders who can tell. I agree with The Guardian that the opening half of the ovel is “beautifully written and painful to read”, and that the central conceit of the novel – that of the underground railroad being an actual underground railroad – is a very clever approach, I feel that this is nonetheless a novel that loses its way and one that doesn’t realise its potential. The later scenes with the slavecatcher Ridgeway – where he explains his thinking to the novel’s protagonist – are implausible and break the reader’s experience of the story and its characters. Is implausibility such a sin? In a novel that employs the actual impossibilities of Magical Realism (where things that can’t happen do in fact happen – e.g. the existence of a series of rail tunnels spanning the length of the East Coast of America built by slaves in secret) where is the sin in adding another implausibility? But the problem is that it just doesn’t fit: there are rules that a novel sets itself, in this case Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” transgresses those rules, and in so doing undermines what it has set out to do. Yes, this is just one crack in an otherwise great book, but a major fault nonetheless.