The Underground Railroad: Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2017 Paperback – 29 Jun 2017
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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)
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 SouthSee all Product description
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'Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia, a status made more hellish because she is an outcast from her fellow Africans' says the blurb, yet somehow, in spite of these horrific circumstances, I never really got a sense of her as a character. She didn't seem to develop, or grow, but be more of a cipher; someone to whom things happened, so I failed to fully invest in her story. This was even more the case with the secondary characters - Caesar, the slave who persuades her to run away, seems undeveloped, and then to fade from the story line with little to mark his passing.
Certainly slavery is a subject that needs addressing, and often found myself recoiling at the brutality portrayed and it was good to be forced to confront the horrors of the trade, but more often than not I felt removed, reading, and I don't think this was just to protect my psyche. The jigsaw structure and jumping timeline confused me, and the underground railroad as a metaphor only provoked me to wonder 'but where would the steam go? Everyone would suffocate!' in indignation - hardly the response of reader fully caught up by this world.
My cynical self wonders whether if, in the wake of 'Oscars-so-black', 'me-too', 'times-up' etc, those in power who judge prizes are so keen to be seen as 'woke' (surely an overused word if ever there was one) that they they are rushing to issue hitherto under-represented writers, actors and directors with awards. Certainly there's been a rush to redress the balance in a very short time span. Yet when power has been held by rich, white men for millennia, the truth is that you can't make up for centuries of racism and patriarchy overnight. Or maybe this book simply wasn't to my personal taste. All this said, I am very glad I read it.
The narrative of Cora's escape across five states becomes a sombre and nuanced exploration of the toxic effect of slavery, especially plantation slavery, on the whole of American society, with figures like Martin and Homer serving to illustrate the diversity of human responses to the enveloping nightmare.
I had a mixed reaction to the magic realism of the railroad and to a lesser extent the South Carolina sequence. It was daring on Whitehead's part, because he ran the risk of destroying his book's credibility. I can understand why some readers abandoned the novel at that point. But on balance I thought it worked, adding an invigorating extra dimension.
The only flaw was the rather muted ending, which lacked the self confidence and panache of the rest of the novel.
The writing is lyrical and poetic and crafted with care and a real sense of artistry. The story is utterly compelling and takes a real grip early on and never lets it's tightness ease. The characters are crafted with care and loving attention and their stories draw massive emotional responses. It's hard to fathom the evil and totality of the Slavery Experience, it's savagery and ruthlessness and the way it pock marked itself so deeply into the culture of The South-and beyond. It's impact reasonates today causing a torrent of complex problems & challenges for modern day America.
This is a bleak read but it also inspires as the central characters try to retain their dignity and Hope in a period of unrelenting primeval savagery.
The pace of the book is fierce and you root for the Slaves. There are one or two moments of exhilaration amidst the despair and murderous culture.
Parts of the book ride a rocky road in trying to stretch the debate between the protagonists and for me the weakest section is in the interchange between the Slave Catcher ,Ridgeway, and Cara. That part just doesn't work.
But it's a rare moment in an otherwise superlative read. This is a simply magnificent book which is beautifully written, imaginatively constructed and powerfully realised.
Highly recommended and one of my Books of the Decade.
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