Whether American author Colson Whitehead’s novel makes the Man Booker shortlist or not this book is likely to be commercially the biggest seller of the lot, due to its very good word of mouth which is creating an army of devotees and also its raft of American literary prizes including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Deservedly so? Absolutely!
This is a little gem of a novel which has Barack Obama claiming “terrific” on the cover and was helped up the bestsellers lists by Oprah Winfrey’s enthusiasm. If Whitehead wins the Man Booker and he must be up there with a very strong chance, he will be the third man of colour in a row following Jamaican Marlon James and American Paul Beatty. Whitehead’s book is, as far as I am concerned better than these two winners.
It is the story of Cora, who begins the novel as a slave on a plantation in Georgia. The first section is involving but nothing that we have not read before, well researched from slave accounts. I felt that I knew where the novel was going. All this changed with Cora’s escape on the Underground Railroad, which many will know as a network of supporters and safe places which helped escapees in their bid towards freedom. Whitehead has made this a physical thing in his book, an actual railroad which operates underground. One character says of it;
“Most people think it’s a figure of speech…….. The Underground. I always knew better. The secret beneath us, the entire time.”
Operating in the book almost like a primitive Hogwarts Express characters emerge from this surreal journey not knowing where they are into Whitehead’s fictional representation of a Southern American location, as if they are Dorothy in Oz or Gulliver on his travels but here the new locations provides a different aspect of the black American experience.
A word being used frequently about this novel is “dazzling”, appropriate enough for the characters emerging from the darkness of the underground system as well as for the tale Whitehead spins for his readers. Strong characterisation, a rich and imaginative plot, this is a book I found myself slowing down as I got near the end as I didn’t want the experience to finish.
I knew I was going to like this book and bought it in paperback as soon as the longlist was announced. It was a novel I had earmarked for reading whether it made the lists or not. I was worried that because I had built it up in my head it would be disappointing (which is how I felt about “The Essex Serpent”). I certainly was not disappointed on this occasion. It ticks all the boxes for me, an involving, entertaining, well-written, imaginative, educational, unpredictable read. Whether the Man Booker judges will, in order to ensure a balance of winners, favour a female or British author remains to be seen but this would be a deserving winner.
The Underground Railroad was published in paperback in the UK in June 2017. It is currently number 53 in Amazon’s Top 100 books and is the number 1 bestseller in their “Metaphysical and Visionary” category.