My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I really loved Colson Whitehead’s ‘The Intuitionist’ and ‘Zone One’ so was very excited to get a copy of ‘The Underground Railroad,’ courtesy of NetGalley and Doubleday (many thanks!)
This is a very strong novel, but I didn’t personally love it as much as those other two books. It’s a bit hard to criticize a book at all when it deals with such a significant and terrible issue as the history of slavery in the United States. The traumas of that era, so frequently swept under the rug, are fully brought to light and examined here, shedding illumination on the repercussions that the atrocities of that time are still having today. However, it’s a bit hard to forget at any point during the reading of this book: “this is an important book about important issues that you ought to understand.”
This is true, however, on this level, I feel that it would’ve worked better if the book had been wholly true to history. The setting of the novel is nearly completely historically realistic (although different situations and incidents are placed and adjusted for narrative impact) – except for the alt-history concept that the “Underground Railroad” was an actual network of tunnels, with rails and train cars, secretly built through the labor of escaped slaves and their allies. Now, this is an intriguing alternate history idea – but I don’t think it was fully successful here, because nothing in the story actually depends on that idea, or is significantly enhanced by the concept of having actual underground trains. It’s used a few times in some nice metaphors, but that’s about it. I felt that for me, the ‘fantastic’ element watered down the impact of the book’s depiction of the very real horrors suffered by real enslaved people, just a little bit.
However, I still very much admired the book. The main character of Cora, a woman who grows up under the conditions of slavery and seeks to gain her freedom, was extremely well-realized, and her difficult journey is tense and gripping.