Release Date: 2nd August 2016
Genre: Drama/historical/literary fiction
Trigger warnings: Slavery, racism towards black and Native American people, sexual assault, violence, gore.
This novel follows Cora and Caesar, slaves on a plantation in Georgia during the 1800s. Cora’s mother, Mabel, managed to escape years previous, and Cora has always resented her because her continued enslavement and isolation as a result. When Caesar approaches Cora proposing they run away together, they discover the underground railroad, and with the help of an experienced abolitionist, flee Georgia and try to keep one step ahead of the vicious slave-catcher, Ridgeway.
I’ve wanted to read this book since it came out and seemed to smash the literary genre, collecting the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. All these prizes upped my expectations massively, and even then the book managed to meet them.
The story is completely harrowing, as you’d expect. Whitehead pulls no punches with the narrative events and descriptions of what Cora and the other slaves live through, hence the warning for violence and gore. No one old enough to read this book needs a reminder of how horrific the treatment of slaves was but it never fails to shock me every time I do read about it. It completely baffles me how human beings could be so evil, and the fact that racism still exists in the world today is disgusting. I feel like it’s important to me as a white person to always keep educating myself about this topic, as well as support the stories written about it (especially by black authors).
I really enjoyed Whitehead’s writing, also. I’ve seen a few reviews saying the story seemed disjointed and that hindered their enjoyment of the book but I really liked that. I feel like the matter-of-fact tone in which some passages were written in were some of the most hard-hitting because it signified just how commonplace these atrocities were. Other sections were so beautiful and powerful that it’s no wonder Whitehead won those awards and is so revered. I do believe the book ended quickly, however, but also understood why it did. I just wanted to spend more time with Cora and her story. Her character was brilliant, and she covered so many issues and frames of mind that I’d never considered before.
It goes without saying that The Underground Railway is a book you need to be in the right frame of mind to read, as well as be able to concentrate fully on what is happening. In my opinion, this isn’t an easy read you can flit in and out of. It’s immersive and hard-hitting, and better consumed with your full attention. I definitely recommend this book. I can see this book being one I carry with me in my life and has the potential to have the same effect on other readers too.
A quick interlude here, I’ve noticed this book shelved a few times as YA because the protagonist, Cora, is a teenager. This is NOT young adult. Cora doesn’t read like a typical teenager because of the horrors she has suffered through in her life, and the narrative certainly doesn’t read like a teen book. This isn’t to say teens can’t read it – obviously, I’m a teen myself – and enjoy it. Just don’t go into it expecting it to be YA because it is very much adult fiction.
It has also been announced as of March 2017 that Amazon is making a series based upon the book, written and directed by Barry Jenkins (the director of Moonlight). I’m very, very excited.
While I do think this is an important book to read, please be careful if you do decide to pick up this book given the trigger warnings at the top of this review. Taking care of yourself is always the most important thing.
Have you read The Underground Railroad? If so, let me know in the comments and we can discuss! Also, if you have any questions, I’ll do my best to answer them.
Thank you, lovelies.