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The Underground Railroad: Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2017 Hardcover – 6 Oct 2016

4.4 out of 5 stars 81 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Fleet; First Edition, First Impression edition (6 Oct. 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0708898394
  • ISBN-13: 978-0708898390
  • Product Dimensions: 16 x 3 x 23.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (81 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,252 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product description


It has invaded both my sleeping and waking thoughts . . . Each character feels alive with a singular humanity . . . Whitehead is on a roll, the reviews have been sublime (Bim Adewunmi Guardian)

An engrossing and harrowing novel (Sunday Times)

[A] brutal, vital, devastating novel...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 (Alex Preston Observer)

This thrilling tale of escape from a deep south plantation takes in terror, beauty and the history of human tragedy..This uncanny novel never attempts to deliver a message - instead it tells one of the most compelling stories I have ever read. Cora's strong, graceful hands touch on the greatest tragedies of our history (Cynthia Bond, Guardian)

It's so good it's hard to praise it without whipping out the cliches: it's an elegant, devastating powerhouse of a book, following a young black woman all over America as she tries to escape the horrors of slavery. When it was published with Oprah's imprimatur, in August, it was universally acclaimed. It deserved it (Michelle Dean Guardian)

One of the best, if not the best, book I've read this year . . . Whitehead never exploits his subject matter, and in fact it's the sparseness of the novel that makes it such a punch in the gut (Sarah Shaffi Stylist)

My book of the year by some distance...It's a profound and important novel, but more than anything it's an absurdly good read, gripping you in its tightly wound plot, astonishing you with its leaps of imagination. If Whitehead doesn't win every prize going next year, I'll appear on Saturday Review in my underpants (Alex Preston Observer, Best Fiction of 2016)

Whitehead is a superb storyteller . . . [he] brilliantly intertwines his allegory with history . . . writing at the peak of his game . . . Whitehead's achievement is truly remarkable: by giving the Underground Railroad a new mythology, he has found a way of confronting other myths, older and persistent, about the United States. His book cannot have enough readers (Telegraph)

It is an extraordinary novel, a rich, confident work that will deservedly win - on the basis of literary merit as well as moral purpose . . . History and human experience as well as an artist's obligation to tell the truth have shaped a virtuoso novel that should be read by every American as well as readers across the world. And it will be, it should be (Eileen Battersby Irish Times)

An utterly transporting piece of storytelling (Alex Heminsley The Pool)

Bestselling author Colson Whitehead's novel is a searing indictment of slavery with a detailed inventory of man's inhumanity to man - and Cora's flight is a harrowing and shocking trip for the reader (Daily Mail)

A stunning, brutal and hugely imaginative book. It's a favourite of both Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama. It is painful history re-imagined in a powerful and brilliant way (Emerald St)

Recommended by none other than Obama AND Oprah, The Underground Railroad arrives deserving every last drop of hype that's come its way . . . There are many twists and turns in Cora's long, treacherous journey towards freedom and while The Underground Railroad is at times brutal and disturbing, it's also hopeful and an addictive, compulsive read. After reading it, a corner of your heart will always belong to Cora. An instant classic (Sarra Manning Red)

Reaches the marrow of your bones, settles in and stays forever . . . a tour de force (Oprah Winfrey)

This bravura novel reimagines that same network as a real subterranean railway, upon which a girl named Cora flees the slave-catcher Ridgeway. Throughout, horrific experiences are rendered in lapidary prose, but it's Cora's daring that provides the story's redemptive oomph (Mail on Sunday)

Inventive and hard-hitting (Metro)

It is a bold way of reimagining the slave experience and, in the capable hands of Whitehead, succeeds triumphantly (Mail on Sunday)

Brutal, tender, thrilling and audacious (Naomi Alderman Guardian)

An enchanting tale . . . full of vivid images, learned allusions and astute observations . . . The most important and acclaimed American novel of the past year (London Review of Books)

I stayed up way too late to finish this... It will be haunting me in the best way (Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You)

A fantastical picaresque through the dark side of American history (Daily Telegraph)

Thrilling and unsentimental (Scotsman)

The Underground Railroad is a noble descendant of the great narratives of slavery, and among the very finest of its novels (Wesley Stace Times Literary Supplement)

An audaciously imagined and profoundly moving novel (Eithne Farry Express)

Stunning and unsentimental . . . required reading (Jenny Niven Herald)

A charged and important novel that pushed at the boundaries of fiction (Justine Jordan Guardian, Best Books of 2016)

Leaves the reader with a devastating understanding of the terrible human costs of slavery . . . with echoes of Toni Morrison's Beloved, Victor Hugo's Les Miserables and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, and with brush strokes borrowed from Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka and Jonathan Swift . . . Colson Whitehead has told a story essential to our understanding of the American past and the American present (Michiko Kakutani New York Times)

A book that resonates with deep emotional timbre. The Underground Railroad reanimates the slave narrative, disrupts our settled sense of the past and stretches the ligaments of history right into our own era . . . The story charges along with incredible power . . . The canon of essential novels about America's peculiar institution just grew by one (Ron Charles Washington Post)

The Underground Railroad isn't the modern slave narrative it first appears to be. It is something grander and more piercing, a dazzling antebellum anti-myth...Whitehead's prose is quick as a runaway's footsteps (New York Review of Books)

[The Underground Railroad] is really good - good, in fact, in just about every way a novel can be good . . . a grave and fully realized masterpiece, a weird blend of history and fantasy that will have critics rightfully making comparisons to Toni Morrison and Gabriel García-Márquez (Boston Globe)

This book should be required reading in classrooms across the country alongside Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird. If this isn't Colson Whitehead's masterpiece, it's definitely the best book of the year and maybe the most important work of the decade (Chicago Tribune)

Masterful, urgent . . . one of the finest novels written about our country's still unabsolved original sin (Charles Finch USA Today)

The Underground Railroad has serious ambition, especially within the tradition of literary satire . . . With deadpan virtuosity and muted audacity, Whitehead integrates the historical details of slavery with the present (Los Angeles Review of Books)

Whitehead is a fantastic novelist, one of the best in America today. (Certainly better than Franzen.)... Oprah is right: The Underground Railroad is Whitehead's best book yet... This is the rare critically acclaimed bestseller that deserves every ounce of its adoration, and more. The hype is real. You can believe Oprah, and its scores of other fans, including some guy who took The Underground Railroad on summer vacation and can't stop talking about its "terrific... powerful" portraiture of race in America. That fan's name is Barack Obama (Seattle Times)

Magnetizing and wrenching . . . Each stop Cora makes along the Underground Railroad reveals another shocking and malignant symptom of a country riven by catastrophic conflicts, a poisonous moral crisis, and diabolical violence. Each galvanizing scene blazes with terror and indictment as Whitehead tracks the consequences of the old American imperative to seize, enslave, and profit . . . Hard-driving, lasersharp, artistically superlative, and deeply compassionate, Whitehead's unforgettable odyssey adds a clarion new facet to the literature of racial tyranny and liberation (Booklist)

Startlingly original . . . Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing authority and razor-sharp ingenuity; he is now assuredly a writer of the first rank (Kirkus)

In powerful, precise prose, at once spellbinding and ferocious, the book follows Cora's incredible journey north, step by step . . . the story is literature at its finest and history at its most barbaric. Would that this novel were required reading for every American citizen (Publishers Weekly)

Colson Whitehead's staggering, haunted new novel . . . [is] a book that is fully expected to win all the awards this year - Pulitzer Prize, Booker Prize, National Book Award, etc - and it deserves every last one (Chapter 16)

Hard-driving, laser-sharp, artistically superlative, and deeply compassionate, Whitehead's unforgettable odyssey adds a clarion new facet to the literature of racial tyranny and liberation (Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence, shortlist announcement)

Book Description

From prize-winning, bestselling author Colson Whitehead, a magnificent, wrenching, thrilling tour de force chronicling a young slave's adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South

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Customer Reviews

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Colson Whitehead’s sixth novel, The Underground Railroad, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. By chance I had finished off this book just about a week before and while I enjoyed it, I’m still not sure I would be the first to put it into the same camp of great past Pulitzer winners such as To Kill A Mockingbird, The Old Man and the Sea, or more recently The Road. I will admit that I have not read the other nominees, nor are they near the top of my reading list so maybe it is unfair to judge it so harshly, but I just didn’t find it to be the best book I’ve read this year.

It’s a good story and it engages you easily. Cora is a third generation slave in America whose grandmother Ajarri was born free in Africa and brought to America, and whose mother escaped the life of slavery without leaving anything of any value to Cora. Cora is fairly content (or as content as one can be in the situation) with her life on the Randall farm, her part being administered by the less callous brother slave owner but new arrival Caesar lights something within her. After a horrific whipping is administered to Caesar, Cora steps in and takes a beating herself and her attitude and desires spring anew and the question of escaping and breaking out start to tempt her.

The Underground Railroad that is spoken of is not the same one that is found in history textbooks; it is what it says it is, a litany of underground train tracks that can be diverted and displaced at the will of the abolitionists, so long as they are not found by the racists and slave-hunters that track the land. Cora takes the train around America and visits different parts of America. While they seem different at first, the same horrors tend to manifest themselves, albeit in different ways.
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The story starts off in a fast-paced narration of various brutalities performed on the slaves by their masters - which would, at different times, surely cause more than a raised eyebrow from the public. It makes you disgusted at the N word which very shortly becomes a synonym for pain and suffering, and you may not use that word again, not even as a joke, for a long time.

However, once the story moves on, by focusing on a single character and her 'adventures', you quickly become aware of the underlying history and the morality lurking between the lines. The book takes you on a journey throughout the States and show you the life of the people who, according to the Good Book, are living in a society which believes a man is equal to one another – but where exactly do blacks and Indians stand at this belief?

Do not make a mistake of thinking this is yet another story on the topic of ‘let us apologise for our sins of the past’, as there is much more to it, and the apology is not really the main (or not even secondary) theme here – it is more like a description of how hungry for power a man can be, and how incredibly brutal we can be when trying to achieve 'the higher purpose'.

The story as a whole makes you appreciate what you got - as with every great novel that deals with human struggle against unfavourable odds, be it the nature or the society - and also gives you a peek into one of the bloody chapters of the history of humankind - the slavery on the American continent, but also it deals with the 'Indian-massacre' which had preceded it, and perhaps - just perhaps created the (social) environment for the events to come.
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The Underground Railroad is a savage and often harrowing tale of the slave trade in America with a slightly fantastical twist (in that the underground railroad of the title is here shown to be actual rather than the hypothetical reality).

We follow Cora, a slave girl living in horrific conditions in Southern America. Her mother escaped and abandoned her when she was young, something she too decides to do when a fellow slave plants the idea in her head. From hereon in Cora is always trying to stay one step ahead of her pursuers, occasionally settling down but forever on the run. It's a book which pulls no punches, recounting the horrors of the slave trade in gory detail.

Despite enjoying this I did have a few issues with it. Really, I didn't see the point in the fantasy elements at all. The book wouldn't have suffered by a more realistic portrayal of Cora's flight from place to place and those who helped her, indeed I'd have preferred it. Also, at times it did seem a little cold, whilst the main protagonists were well fleshed out there were a few who I never got a handle on, particularly those introduced towards the end of the book (which was also the weakest section).

But these are nitpicks to what was an enthralling ride, with some disturbing imagery. Whitehead has clearly done a lot of research in detailing one of humanity's darkest hours and some of the situations Cora finds herself in are quite upsetting. There's also a depressing twist towards the end which feels like a stomach punch to much of what has haunted Cora before.
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