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Anne Melville – The House Of Hardie

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Revolution at Oxford, and the early expeditions to China.

Publisher: Agora Books
Pages: 288
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: B07Q4FMJSZ
First Published: 1st July 1987; republished in ebook format by Agora 2nd May 2019
Date Reviewed: 1st May 2019
Rating: 4.5/5

In 1874, Gordon Hardie ran away to sea, joining a botanist and becoming an assistant. He comes home to take his place in the family wine business but agrees with his father that before too long he may go to China in search of a legendary lily. Meanwhile, his sister Midge is preparing to attend tutorials at Oxford University; she wants to work in a school and some sympathetic professors are agreeing to teach women so long as they don’t use the main entrances to the colleges. Also preparing for Oxford is Archie Yates, the grandson of a marquess who isn’t too good at studying and plans to have fun. His younger sister, Lucy, longs to see more of the world – she’s hardly ever away from home – and delights in visiting him. With the Marquess a loyal patron of the Hardies, the siblings will meet. It is likely to have a great impact on all of their lives.

The House Of Hardie is the first book in a trilogy, a family saga set in the Victorian era. A story of class, gender, and exploration, it looks at two pairs of siblings and their relationships with each other, as well as the ways they work to achieve their differing dreams.

This book is sensational. Placing an emphasis on the middle class and looking at lesser-known subjects, it offers everything you might want in a historical novel, and then some. (This is provided you don’t mind some romance.) It’s clear that Melville did a lot of research and had a mind to create a work that would be as immersive as possible. Rather like Elizabeth Chadwick, who started publishing her medieval historical fiction in the early 1990s, Melville looks to draw her readers fully into the world she’s writing about. She does not use the sights, smells, and similar details in the way Chadwick does, and she limits her description, but the effect is the same; this book will steal your time and you’ll be very happy for it.

One of the major themes, the success of the social commentary is down to Melville’s dedication to presenting everyday life for Victorians in Oxford and limiting the inclusion of the aristocracy. The Yates’ position, the aristocrats without an inheritance – both a narrative device and realistic – enables Melville to take her discussion where she wants it to be; the inevitable romances allow for further discussion. It’s difficult to move up in the world, and difficult to move down, and where the class lines are less defined – high-born, penniless; profitable ‘every-man’ – there’s another layer of conversation when sparks fly. Needless to say the characterisation is fabulous. There’s a fair amount of introspective but Melville never scrimps on dialogue. And the employment of the second major theme – education for women – allows for a lot of forward-thinking, and brief references to books.

“A woman in England is expected by her husband to shriek at the sight of a mouse but to endure without complaint the pain of having a baby every year, and she fulfils both those expectations. If she were given a different pattern to follow, she would take the mouse to bed with her as a pet and think nothing of it.”

Oxford University is the place of education for the sons of aristocrats, and, as the years pass, women too. More than anything else, Midge wants a degree, and whilst as a woman she can’t receive a certificate she’s allowed to do everything that for a man would mean receiving one. In the space for exposition Midge’s studies create, the author gives a brief history of the early movements towards women’s equal access to education, using Midge’s experiences as a sort of case study to show specifics. This together with the chapters focused on Archie who stays in Magdalen College proper, equate to a well-rounded history – quite apt for a book that looks at two students of the subject. And the author never misses a chance to add to your mental image of Victorian Oxford, having the river freeze over for ice skating, involving everyone in Eights Week (yearly since 1715), and making time for walks and other excursions. It’s a championing of Oxford to rival Philip Pullman.

The romance threads in this book are strong, as well written as everything else; the book is historical romance but not quite at the level the label implies. The class issues are forefront, and Melville puts career above romance. Both relationships evolve in ways that come as a surprise, Melville wanting to look at another aspect of relationships than the easy happily-ever-after. She’s quite diligent in this, including concepts that are the opposite of romance when she wants to show historical context or indeed imply the drawbacks to these siblings of different social classes knowing each other. When the romances had previously been moving along well, these changes can be hard to read, but they make the stories less predictable.

The final section is absolutely fascinating, a story high on adventure in a literal manner. The basic narrative (obvious fiction aside) is as good as any non-fiction account and the author handles the differences between what a Victorian explorer would have written and what we expect to hear about now, with aplomb. For example, her white western characters often think of their discomfort amongst those of an entirely different culture that doesn’t match English standards of behaviour, and then Melville uses description to show the goodness in these ‘savage’ people; at other times the characters try to learn a little about the people around them, hindered only by the author’s concern that they adhere to the thoughts of their time.

Why, then, is this well planned and well executed book not the recipient of the highest rating here? As the story heads towards its final section it starts to focus more on one set of characters, swiftly cutting out the other set altogether. This is all well and good as the look at education and the relationship there had previously been at the forefront, but the narrowing down to one set of characters has an immediate effect on the atmosphere of the book; though it’s right that the atmosphere changes to fit the change in the story, the beauty of the book was in the way Melville switched between the characters and the variety of commentary and content that was provided, the result of the good writing. This naturally becomes a bit lost.

With this comes a change in the way the romance is written. Whilst there had been problems to overcome in the relationships prior to this, the problems in the final chapters are magnified because of the decision to look at the one couple. Maybe it’s the relative silence of the new location, but it becomes repetitive, leaning towards that particular sort of angst that is more device than anything else. And, due to it, the perhaps surprising way in which the other romance unfolded becomes less surprising-but-powerful choice and more way-to-cull-character-count.

The good thing is that these factors only affect the section they are included in – the book might not end quite how you were hoping or thinking, but that doesn’t change the success of the rest of the book. It may be ironic that this is due to the final section changing location and structure but, regardless, it applies.

The House Of Hardie is a great feat. An adventure, a number of lessons, some romance, and a particular attention to storytelling that is at the top end of the scale. Recommended to anyone who likes the idea of taking a trip to the era and reading history in the context of history. You’re not going to be able to put it down.

I received this book for review.

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D H Lawrence – Lady Chatterley’s Lover

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Sex and industry.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: N/A (there are a few different editions)
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-141-44149-8
First Published: 1928
Date Reviewed: 29th March 2019
Rating: 3.5/5

Connie married a baronet; now back from the war, Clifford is different, his newly-acquired disability changing their marriage. More to the point, however, Connie is becoming bored by him, his clique of quasi-intellectual friends, and the pomp surrounding his titled heritage. After a brief affair with one of the friends, and following a conversation in which Clifford suggested that it wouldn’t be bad if Connie became pregnant by another man so that the baronetcy could continue, Connie meets the her husband’s gamekeeper. Like Clifford, Oliver, too, was at war. His experience situated him somewhere in between the social classes. He is distant and cold, but Connie becomes attracted to him.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a novel of many themes. Most well-known as erotic fiction, the book also looks at class, and the progression of industry over traditional English life.

Lawrence has a lot he wants to say and it’s evident early on that his object is to make his opinion clear, and hopefully easy to emphasise with. Most often when detailing his thoughts – through his characters, looked at in a philosophical manner – he repeats words and phrases until the thought reaches an almost ‘post-‘ level of discussion. Perhaps he saw no other way to get his points across, to rail against the new norms of his day; it’s not hard to liken him to others who behoove their point in a literary manner.

What’s perhaps surprising is that industry is Lawrence’s biggest point, the sex taking second place in this regard. By Lawrence’s time the industrial revolution had reached a particular level; in this book we see the slow but sure change in social make-up, where those who were always rich were starting to sell off their inheritance. Lawrence – of a working class background, the child of a coal miner and a teacher – details the breaking up of estates, the land reused for cheap housing for those who do the literal heavy lifting. The author isn’t too worried, here, about the aristocracy – his sadness lies in rural life changing, in coal mines washing away the peace and beauty of the countryside; if more people had thought as he did perhaps we would have more historical estates remaining today.

The author uses his characters’ minds to spread his opinions. In this respect the book is rather like Anna Karenina – where Tolstoy spreads his thoughts on agriculture enough that his farmer, the rich Lenin, is a thinly-veiled metaphor for the author himself, so too does Lawrence use Connie and Oliver to ‘think’ his own thoughts. Had they been around at the same time, the two writers may have had much to debate.

In talking of industry and as a topic in its own right, Lawrence discusses the class system. He shows how class isn’t always easy to delineate – Oliver, a working class man, has two modes of speech, that of a high-ranking member of the British army, and the dialect of his home and background. Interestingly, Lawrence makes Oliver’s regional dialect the one that is secondary, or at least that’s the effect of it – it seems Oliver’s army English, which is similar to his employers, is now his default; Connie moans at him for speaking in regional dialect because she sees it as affected and not him; part of his character is his struggle between his different lived experiences.

Lawrence discusses the upper class, those with inherited wealth; he dislikes Clifford’s place in the world but is very lenient towards Connie. Connie’s background is somewhere between middle and upper class; in marrying Clifford she’s risen a level, enough that she’s far from Oliver in terms of society but not too high that Lawrence can’t use her for his ‘isn’t the countryside beautiful and industry is ruining it’ monologues. It is unfortunate that Lawrence uses disability – Clifford – as an easy way to justify Connie’s move away from him (though she does care about Clifford), but it is a reflection of the attitudes of the time.

Connie’s desire for sex, that which accompanies love but isn’t necessarily ‘making love’, is fulfilled by Oliver’s arrival in the story. The book is absolutely littered with sex scenes and other references to the act; there’s a reason the title is synonymous with sex and it’s difficult not to argue that despite the theme of industry, the sex shouldn’t be first and foremost in any discussion of the book. (I’ve included it last to subvert this.) Lawrence was not able to publish the book openly in Britain; the publication date of 1928 is the initial, private publication, and the date when it was seen in France and Australia. There was a court dispute in the 1960s; finally Penguin won the right to publish the work in its entirety, years after Lawrence’s death. The sex was still shocking in the ’60s, and it’s still somewhat shocking today. When it comes to these scenes, Lawrence’s phrasing is more poetry than anything else – at least that seems to be what he was going for, with his leaning towards purple prose; there’s a layer of dissociation to it as well. The scenes can verge on being philosophical, like the industrial musings. And it does verge on being too much, unnecessary; it’s both erotic fiction and surprisingly not sexy.

Part of this is down to that dissociation, the gap that exists between Lawrence and his characters. Whilst he writes from Oliver and Connie’s perspective, most often Connie’s, the text reads as though it’s the narration of someone watching and describing what he sees. And a lot of that is down to Lawrence’s writing of Connie herself. The general portrayal isn’t bad, in fact often Lawrence captures her well, but there are unfortunately occasions when he applies the male gaze to her thinking. That Connie thinks about sex in detail works. The way and the how, however, is sometimes at odds, so to speak. This in turn extends to her development as a character – she develops a trait that does not quite fit with who she is; it’s more about Lawrence moving the plot to where he wants it to be.

Lastly on this subject, there is a very minor LGBT element to the story, included in memories of the past. It’s not detailed – understandably, given the era – but it’s there, just enough that Lawrence could probably include it without question.

I haven’t mentioned plot – that’s because it’s very thin, a minor element. The story also doesn’t end in an expected way, instead Lawrence leaves you to decide exactly what happens, and whether or not that’s satisfactory depends on your thoughts thus far.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover is both of its time and eternal, with its thoughts of changing times. The stereotype of the book is there for a reason and it’s not a book you can get lost in. It’s best in the context of its fame and publication, and as an eyewitness account and opinion of the era. As a historical document and example of various attitudes, it has a lot to recommend it.

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Sofie Laguna – The Choke

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You don’t know what you don’t know.

Publisher: Gallic Books (Belgravia)
Pages: 255
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-910-70957-3
First Published: 2017
Date Reviewed: 18th March 2019
Rating: 5/5

It’s the 1970s, and Justine Lee lives with her grandfather, ‘Pop’, by the Murray river in Australia. Pop was in the war and as a result doesn’t say much and rarely leaves home – most of what Justine knows of her family history has been learned through listening to Pops talk to his chickens. Justine’s mother left her and her father because, Pop told her, Justine was born breech. Dad rarely comes to visit, and when he does Pops tends to be angry; Dad, it seems, is not a nice person. Justine’s half-brothers don’t like her; her mother’s presence means their mother is no longer with Dad. The Lee and Worlley families are no longer friendly with each other. And Justine’s friends tell her she smells and should wash her clothes.

The Choke is a stunning look at the life of a neglected child who is trying to live whilst only semi-aware of the odds stacked against her. Looking at four years of Justine’s life – the formative time just before the teens and two years into them – it shows how devastating a lack of nurture can be, particularly in the context of the decade Laguna has chosen.

The author sets her story in an area a fair journey – at least on foot – away from the rest of society. This amplifies Justine’s familial issues, creating a physical gap that serves well to introduce the fact of the emotional and educational gap between Justine and her peers. Told from Justine’s perspective, you are required to read through the lines constantly, but this itself is no hardship – as soon as you’ve a few pages behind you and have a fair grounding in the situation, there is no need for Laguna to convince you further – Justine’s story is such that you’re rooting for her very early on. Laguna’s focus is on Justine’s development, the young girl’s slow collation of the bits and pieces of information she receives.

A lot of what Justine doesn’t know is down to the simple fact of her age – adults won’t explain to her what she’s too young to understand; inevitably she hears parts of conversations. But much of Justine’s complete innocence is due to her grandfather. Laguna doesn’t diagnose with labels, instead she provides everything you need as an adult to work it out – Pops has PTSD from the war – he speaks of the ‘Japs’ – and as the book continues, the affect his experiences have had on him are shown in increasing detail. Pops seems to have been saved by a friend, the only person he willing goes out to visit. He drinks, smokes, and watches John Wayne films which are such a big part of his day-to-day life that John Wayne’s characters become teachers to Justine. He speaks openly only to his chickens. As much as he loves Justine, he is ill-equipped to care for her, neglecting to teach her basic life skills and not watchful enough in terms of her health.

Laguna gives Justine a learning disability that no one in the book recognises. It is easily recognisable here, just as the PTSD is, and its introduction leads into the book’s biggest example of the difference between our society today and back in the 1970s: Justine struggles with school work but not one person notices. Well, not one adult person – the sole person who understands Justine’s problem and helps her is her friend, Michael, another person Laguna does not label.

In Michael, Laguna has written an incredibly good example of physical disability, in this case Cerebral Palsy, and it is in Michael that Laguna’s refusal to label shows itself for the excellent choice it is. By describing characteristics of disability, and dyslexia, and PTSD, without going into diagnoses, Laguna is able to develop her characters as real personalities without any of the stigma or easy stereotyping that another might have fallen into. Laguna shows the diversity of disability and mental illness, putting the person first. Inevitably she also provides information on how to go about treating others – as regular people. Whilst The Choke is not primarily about difference – with what Justine’s life consists of, it wouldn’t be right if it was – it is an active, excellent, commentary. And that’s true both in the context of its period – we get to see the issues people had back then, which is how Justine’s inability to read falls through the cracks – as well as examples of life that are of course just as relevant today. It is incredibly, hugely, refreshing.

(I am aware of the irony in my own use of labels.)

So the novel isn’t primarily about difference and can’t be: Justine’s life with her Pop is down to the situation of her parents which pervades the entirety of the 250-odd pages. Justine’s mother did not leave the home due to her daughter’s breech birth – of course. And her father isn’t away at work – as it’s important to know, he’s a violent criminal. Justine doesn’t know much about her father except that Pops dislikes him, and her brothers’ mother refuses to speak or look at her because of her mother’s involvement; she has seen her aunt only once because her aunt does not put up with the abuse she receives for living a happy life away from everyone and because she has a girlfriend. And due to the choices and lives of those older than Justine, Justine is herself a target, though she does not always know it. When she does know, she doesn’t know exactly why. This violence and hatred, together with the neglect, culminate to form the ending of the book.

The Choke is an excellent look at abuse, and the cycle through the generations, an example of why things continue and how important it is to look for signs in children beyond the obvious. It’s a super look at neuro and physical difference. And it’s written in a lovely, easy, language that is quick to read through. Laguna’s work has been described as highly original and emphatic. I can’t but repeat this.

I received this book for review. It’s out in the UK on 28th March, published by Gallic Books.

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Anne Brontë – Agnes Grey

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Against the odds.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A
First Published: December 1847
Date Reviewed: 4th March 2019
Rating: 5/5

Heading towards poverty, and with a need to help her family, nineteen-year-old Agnes sets out to become a governess for the wealthy – people who had been her mother’s peers. In doing this she finds many awful moral codes, but she soldiers on, her desire to help and her hope in the good in people continuing.

Agnes Grey was Anne’s début, and is the more easy-going of her two novels. The book is an interesting mix of routine, mundane, content and highly satisfying theme work. It’s well-written and even during the low moments sports a hard-to-put-down quality. Anne takes a far shorter time to tell her tales than her more famous sisters, Charlotte in particular, and at least in the context of our present day it pays off. For this, Agnes Grey is also a lot calmer.

Anne covers a number of topics simultaneously, the most notable being the lifestyle and general attitudes of the wealthy seen from the position of a servant, and animal abuse; the book is largely based on Anne’s time as a governess, and the animal abuse included is unfortunately in context1. These aspects are very difficult to read at times; Anne details Agnes’ inability to discipline her charges due to rulings laid out by their parents, with the appalling result this has on their personal development. There are only two governess jobs in the book; Anne uses the second to show how all the wealth in the world doesn’t necessarily mean happiness, as she shows the affect of rose-tinted glasses on dreams that were ripe for the taking.

Agnes herself is an interesting character, being both winsome and somewhat unaware of herself. Her personality reflects the general purpose of the book, calm and informative, thoughtful, but there are occasions wherein she seems to misunderstand that people’s thoughts about her are in tandem with the way she comes across – she has a tendency to suggest people are, for example, snubbing her, without reflecting on what she did before that quite likely gave them to believe she wanted distance.

Religion is ever present, Anne’s devote faith in full force. However the use is temperate – it’s natural and devoid of any preaching, a simple aspect of Agnes’ character and understandably spoken of given Anne’s background. There is also a budding romance, nestled among the rest of the text in a way that means it’s important enough without crossing the genre line.

Lastly, it’s worth noting the value in the more philosophical aspects of the book. It is in Anne’s general thoughts, presented as Agnes’ musings, that the book is at its best, often transending time:

It is foolish to wish for beauty. Sensible people never either desire it for themselves or care about it in others. If the mind be well cultivated, and the heart well disposed, no one ever cares for the exterior. So said the teachers of our childhood; and so say we to the children of the present day. All very judicious and proper, no doubt, but are such assertions supported by actual evidence?

Likewise:

If a woman is fair and amiable, she is praised for both qualities, but especially the former, by the bulk of mankind: if, on the other hand, she is disagreeable in person and character, her plainness is commonly inveighed against as her greatest crime, because, to common observers, it gives the greatest offence; while, if she is plain and good, provided she is a person of retired manners and secluded life, no one ever knows of her goodness, except her immediate connections. Others, on the contrary, are disposed to form unfavourable opinions of her mind, and disposition, if it be but to excuse themselves for their instinctive dislike of one so unfavoured by nature; and visa versa with her whose angel form conceals a vicious heart, or sheds a false, deceitful charm over defects and foibles that would not be tolerated in another.

Agnes Grey is a stunning novel, in the sense of the words, what is said. It’s not difficult to see why it’s not as famous as the works of Charlotte and Emily – it’s far too calm and quite frankly far too considerate, though in a good way – but it’s worth its weight in gold.

Footnotes

1 In her biography of Charlotte, Gaskell recounts: ‘I was once speaking to her about “Agnes Grey” – the novel in which her sister Anne pretty literally describes her own experience as a governess – and alluding more particularly to the account of the stoning of the little nestlings in the presence of the parent birds. She said that none but those who had been in the position of a governess could ever realise the dark side of “respectable” human nature; under no great temptation to crime, but daily giving way to selfishness and ill-temper, till its conduct towards those dependent on it sometimes amounts to a tyranny of which one would rather be the victim than the inflicter. We can only trust in such cases that the employers err rather from a density of perception and an absence of sympathy, than from any natural cruelty of disposition. Among several things of the same kind, which I well remember, she told me what had once occurred to herself. She had been entrusted with the care of a little boy, three or four years old, during the absence of his parents on a day’s excursion, and particularly enjoined to keep him out of the stable-yard. His elder brother, a lad of eight or nine, and not a pupil of Miss Brontë’s, tempted the little fellow into the forbidden place. She followed, and tried to induce him to come away; but, instigated by his brother, he began throwing stones at her, and one of them hit her so severe a blow on the temple that the lads were alarmed into obedience. The next day, in full family conclave, the mother asked Miss Brontë what occasioned the mark on her forehead. She simply replied, “An accident, ma’am,” and no further inquiry was made; but the children (both brothers and sisters) had been present, and honoured her for not “telling tales.” From that time, she began to obtain influence over all, more or less, according to their different characters; and as she insensibly gained their affection, her own interest in them was increasing. But one day, at the children’s dinner, the small truant of the stable-yard, in a little demonstrative gush, said, putting his hand in hers, “I love ‘ou, Miss Bront&euml.” Whereupon, the mother exclaimed, before all the children, “Love the governess, my dear!”‘ (Gaskell, 1857, pp. 189-190)

References

Gaskell, Elizabeth (1857) The Life Of Charlotte Brontë, Vol 1, 2nd ed, Smith, Elder & Co, London

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Colson Whitehead – The Underground Railroad

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A subway before there was a subway.

Publisher: Fleet (Little, Brown)
Pages: 364
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-708-89840-6
First Published: 2nd August 2016
Date Reviewed: 29th October 2018
Rating: 5/5

When Caesar approaches Cora to ask her to run away from the plantation with him, she considers it for a short while before agreeing – it’s an incredibly dangerous idea but even her fellow slaves are against her and she feels it is worth the likely death to escape. What she doesn’t know is that Caesar has chosen her due to her own mother’s escape and presumed freedom. They may be able to make it to an underground railroad station and hitch a ride on a locomotive that will take them on the first leg of their journey. The railroad has various stations dotted about the country, and it is up to the individual runaway as to whether they stay in a particular place or return to the train and keep travelling.

(The ‘underground railroad’ is a widely known fact of history in the States – any readers who are from other countries that do not cover the railroad in their general curriculum and don’t know about it, will want to read up on it whether before or after having read the book1.)

The Underground Railroad is a historical fantasy about the American slave trade and slavery, and about the country’s history with race as a whole. Using both history from the slavery era and the further racial discrimination that followed in the decades after abolition, Whitehead’s book is both a stunningly creative look at the country’s growth as a nation, and a fantastic commentary and criticism of the same.

This is very much a plot-and-commentary-driven novel. Whitehead has himself said that his initial idea was of what would happen if the underground railroad had been a real train2. He has also said that this choice to make the fantastical railroad the central element of the book allowed him to play with time and different elements of history3.

The other patrollers were boys and men of bad character; the work attracted a type. In another country they would have been criminals, but this was America.

The book starts at a plantation and shows not only the violence and hatred of the slave owners (the book in general is very violent, with Whitehead including various punishments in a way some primary sources do not, his novel making up for the relative censorship in those books) but the hierarchy and violence that arose as a natural consequence of a situation that caused everyone to be focused on their own survival at the detriment of others. As the train takes Cora – the narrative mostly concerns her – to different Southern States, Whitehead uses these assorted pauses to look at different ideas and acted-out discriminatory practices that were not a part of the exact historical time Cora is living in but were a part of the future decades.

This altering of history creates another fantasy thread in the book, though not nearly as close to ‘fantasy’ as the railroad; Cora steps into situations that you’ll rightly see are at odds with the places that came before it. In one such case, the technology in the State seems too far advanced for a short train journey away. Here, mandatory regular health checks for black people in a state that gives them education, housing (if in a dormitory), and relatively lowly jobs, seem at first a thoughtful acknowledgement of escaped slaves’ trauma… until the doctor offers Cora a not-so-elective-as-described sterilisation, discussing how the state is working on health ideas and performing surgeries on black women who have had a couple of children.

The whites came to this land for a fresh start and to escape the tyranny of their masters, just as the freemen had fled theirs. But the ideals they held up for themselves, they denied others. Cora had heard Michael recite the Declaration of Independence back on the Randall plantation many times, his voice drifting through the village like an angry phantom. She didn’t understand the words, most of them at any rate, but created equal was not lost on her. The white men who wrote it didn’t understand it either, if all men did not truly mean all men. Not if they snatched away what belonged to other people, whether it was something you could hold in your hand, like dirt, or something you could not, like freedom. The land she tilled and worked had been Indian land. She knew the white men bragged about the efficiency of the massacres, where they killed women and babies, and strangled their futures in the crib.

Stolen bodies working stolen land.

Whitehead’s commentary on this and other subjects is incredibly blunt yet never leaves that element of fantasy out; it’s safe to say he’s providing a damning criticism but he does what he can to make you question the reality of different concepts. (Though again, as with the railroad, if your knowledge of American history is solid you’ll probably see a lot more of the facts amongst the fiction without having to look them up.)

And then Whitehead returns to the train and gives you a break for a moment so you can consider what you’ve read and consider what might lay ahead. In a similar way he uses chapter breaks for the different States, and changes the character discussed from Cora to a variety of secondary characters. The novel is written in the third person – with one excellent diversion into first person for Caesar’s story – and mainly concerns Cora; Whitehead changes perspective to give details of a scene that Cora is not privvy to, scenes that further explore the purpose of the novel and add different voices and historical perspectives to it. There are notes about laws, and chapters begin with ‘reward’ notices for anyone who turns in the escaped slave discussed within – these appear to be primary sources.

Backing up the story and the commentary is an unsurprisingly good use of language. Whitehead uses controversial words when warranted; as with everything else this book uses extremes in order to display the history correctly and get to the point.

Certainly you have to suspend some belief for the book – a railroad that stretches for hundreds, maybe thousands of miles, created by slaves and only shut down in sections a long time after it was created (the creation itself being a metaphor) – but no more so than at the end, which will produce in you one (or more) of a few possible conclusions as to what has happened, each in turn adding to the various metaphors and making you question everything you’ve already read.

It’s astounding.

The Underground Railroad is not a book to read with a cosy cup of tea and it’s not one to be rushed (as this library user did when the return date crept up on her). It requires your attention, your time, and in a few places your willingness to search for third-party information. For your efforts you will be handsomely rewarded.

Footnotes

1 The historical reality of the railroad, far from Whitehead’s fantastical re-imagining – that many readers have likened to their initial, childhood, conceptions of it – was a secret network of black people, both free men and women and escaped slaves, as well as supportive white people and Native Americans, who aided the escape of slaves from plantations in the Southern States to states further north, and often as far as Canada. The railroad was a network that traded coded information to allow the movements of escapees to pass between them so that various people could aid their escape – the network had people who would themselves visit plantations, people who would house escapees along their route, and people who would work to disrupt the success of any slave owners or slave catchers from using the law to get people back. I’ve written the basics here – the information in the Wikipedia article on the Underground Railroad should suffice in terms of understanding the background to Whitehead’s re-imagining of the network.
2 ‘Before there was Cora, or any other possible protagonist, I was sittin’ around thinking “What if instead of a metaphor, the Underground Railroad was a real train?” So the concept came first before the characters.’ (Whitehead, 2018)
3 ‘…Once I made the choice to have this central fantastic element of a literal underground railroad, it allowed me to play with time and bring in elements of The Holocaust, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, and things like that.’ (Whitehead, 2016)

Online References

Whitehead, Colson (2016) Colson Whitehead’s Subterranean Odyssey, Electric Literature, accessed 28th October 2018.

Whitehead, Colson (2018) Re: I’m author Colson Whitehead – just another down on his luck carny with a pocketful of broken dreams – AMA, Reddit, accessed 28th October 2018.

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