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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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Kirsty Ferry – Watch For Me By Candlelight

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Not only at the first stroke of midnight.

Publisher: Choc Lit
Pages: 302
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 9B079H1LTJB (ASIN)
First Published: 3rd April 2018
Date Reviewed: 8th August 2018
Rating: 4/5

Kate lives in Suffolk where she runs a local history museum, set up in a row of old cottages. Originally from Cambridge, she fell in love with the village she found there, feeling drawn to it. One day a new visitor to the museum, Theo, arrives; Kate begins to slip back in time, into the shoes of someone who looks very similar to herself and who knows someone who looks similar to Theo.

Watch For Me By Candlelight is a time-slip romance with a well-constructed fantasy thread. At first understandably seeming to be an editing error, Ferry’s seamless integration of Kate into her historical past is excellently done, with Kate effectively becoming her historical counterpart whilst remaining herself, able to apply modern concepts to what she is hearing but knowledgeable of what she actually ought to be saying in context. On occasion she does lose herself completely in Cat, Ferry intentionally bringing the history further into the proceedings so that you get to know Cat as well, albeit not as much as Kate.

Partly as a result of all this, the romance is a good one – well plotted and paced. Ferry doesn’t dwell long on minor conflicts, letting the plot go where it will – for example a problematic, more minor, part of life will be solved in good time to aid the path of the main story.

The author’s decision to use a pretty ordinary backdrop and characters allows the spotlight to be on the fantasy, and allows the story to feature a strong dose of reality (the time-slip itself being not so unrealistic). Kate is friends with the family who own the local historic estate, and counterpart Cat was a relative of their ancestors – neither are particularly privileged. Theo/Will (it’s not a spoiler to say he has a counterpart) is well placed in an equally ordinary situation, and it’s this that creates the main conflict in the historical sections.

The writing is good – any anachronisms are the result of the time-slipping and thus not an issue, and the grammar on most occasions is refreshingly super.

There are little things at odds, but the main element that invites question is the ending – it’s not at all as the plot leads you to believe; the mystery is not predictable but might have been better if it was predictable, more suitable.

Apart from that, as described, Watch For Me By Candlelight is a good book. It’s understandably an easy read, enjoyable both in terms of its genre and for the cleverness of the construction, putting genre first to great effect. It’s the second in a series but can be read as a standalone, the references to the first book intriguing and informative.

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Philip Pullman – La Belle Sauvage

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Genesis.

Publisher: David Fickling (Penguin)
Pages: 544
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-0-385-60441-3
First Published: 19th October 2017
Date Reviewed: 22nd January 2018
Rating: 3.5/5

The first months of Lyra Belacqua’s life: when not at school, Malcolm works at his parents’ pub, regularly visits the convent across the river, and paddles down the water in his canoe. One evening, the pub is visited by three men who politely decline the invitation to dine in the main room instead of the more private one they chose upon entering. Malcolm overhears snippets of conversation, and over the next few days it starts to come together. Baby. Prophecy. The Magisterium. Meanwhile Dr Hannah Relf is studying the Bodleian Library’s Alethiometer, using it to gain answers to questions that a secret group of people have hired her to find.

La Belle Sauvage is the first book of The Book Of Dust, the decades-awaited follow up trilogy to His Dark Materials. It serves as a prequel. Written in a way that’s similar to the Young Adult tone of the ’90s books but with enough nods to those readers who have since grown up, it’s (likely) accessible to new readers but certainly best read by those who’ve read the originals.

Looking at the book in isolation, it’s mostly solid. The writing is good, there’s some scary content, and whilst the second half is monotonous it remains a page turner. Possibly due to the fact that Pullman long ago established his aim, the use of religious fervour in this book is even stronger than before. Here Pullman constructs a system that mirrors many religious and political methods in history, his League of Saint Alexander creating snitches of children in order to flush out any hints of rebellion and scare people into submission. There’s a lot of background detail provided but it’s in order to further express how awful the rulers are rather than a case of infodump.

Malcolm’s a believable hero if not particularly compelling, and his counterpart – who I won’t name because it takes a while for them to be identified – is a fair match, even better, perhaps, despite having little to do. Hannah Relf is okay. One of the villains is only there to ramp up the horror and disappears with his own sets of unanswered questions. But in more important news, if you’re looking for Lyra, you’ll be disappointed, and this is where the long wait and the present come into conflict – Lyra remains a speechless baby throughout.

Is it a fair book? Yes, but when the set up of Lyra as a resident of Jordan College was established in Northern Lights, enough back story was provided. We know where Lyra’s going to end up so the worries in La Belle Sauvage aren’t of any import. And it’s difficult to say that the horrors in His Dark Materials are not somewhat damaged in impact by this new book – one can’t help but think that the people of Lyra’s world might have been on the look out for the Magisterium’s next move and thus not been quite so shocked by the happenings in the north ten years later.

There’s also the world-building. There’s not much of it – presumably because it’s expected that readers are well-versed in Lyra’s Oxford – but what is included doesn’t ring true. In the course of the book we see Malcolm collecting disposable nappies and baby formula, which is at odds with the old-fashioned steam-punk that defined Lyra’s world before.

In sum, this book, isolated from its literary context, is a good enough read. Even the monotony isn’t enough to hold it back. But in the context of history it’s an average and rather jarring addition that would’ve been better as a short story.

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Claire North – The End Of The Day

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In life, only two things are certain…

Publisher: Orbit Books (Hachette)
Pages: 401
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-356-50733-0
First Published: 4th April 2017
Date Reviewed: 7th December 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

Charlie is the Harbinger of Death – the Milton Keynes office sends him the details of his next appointment, he gets on a train, bus, or aeroplane, and goes to see someone who is dying or whose world is fading away. It’s a tough job at times, very tough, but Charlie enjoys it; his role is to honour life.

The End Of The Day is a philosophical literary fantasy novel that explores many moral and ethical questions and issues we have in our world today.

This book is original; starting with the potential of a Terry Pratchett influence in its basic concept, it uses a gentle fantasy-type humour, and whilst it appears at first simply to be a solid addition to the genre, it soon reveals itself to be a blend of this and literary fiction.

The plot is scant – in fact it’s more a series of events than anything else – and the character development is not big, but both these things are intentional and with good reason; this is where the philosophical nature comes in. North’s book is primarily a study – a very good, enjoyable-in-its-own-right study – and secondly a good old work of fantasy. Death here is of a distinct type – whilst quite likely being fond of cats (its the personality, the basic construction of Death that is like Pratchett) – the defining nature of North’s Death, which doubles as one of the points the author wants to get across – is that it doesn’t just appear at the end of someone’s life, but at the end of an idea, at the end of a world, a culture in decline.

And it’s not just the usual thought of a cultural element ending (though a language dying along with its last speaker is one of the things North looks at) but also things like the end of a tradition that excludes black or poor people, and the start of a society that denies LGBT rights. Here Death comes at the last instance of the old way to usher in the new.

The above is part of the philosophy North includes – most of the blunter referencing, that becomes blunt the more you read, happens in extracts that aren’t directly related to Charlie. It’s apt here to bring in the writing as it’s part and parcel of this; North uses various different writing methods and markings to deliver her commentary; poetical verses sit alongside sentences full of ellipses, dialects, accents; different languages – even different scripts – are scattered throughout; bunches of sayings, stereotypical sentence beginnings, opinions, and presentations are added as paragraphs and verses, the different sentences of one whole effective conversation jumbled up with the others – a handful of different thoughts displayed at once. To summarise (the following statements are here as examples of the sorts of topics covered) “I’m not racist but…”; “won’t anyone think of the children?”, “well I think”; “but they come to this country…”; “I might be a woman myself but I’m not going to go employing young women – they’ll all go off getting pregnant”.

I only get seventy-two pounds a week to cover everything… will that stop, now I’ve got money for my flat?
And the copper wasn’t sure but wondered if maybe it would, if perhaps now that Jeremiah had savings and no roof over his head, the government didn’t regard his welfare as its concern.

There is a great number of ideas, thoughts, political and social points included so often-times these sentences are generalised or simply provide more insight into what North is doing, but on occasion – more than a few occasions – the author looks at something in more detail. The more generalised do include a certain amount of detail for the sheer amount of insight they provide in just a couple of sentences, it’s just that the chapters (very short in most cases) have more space to give a concept.

Speaking of chapters and thus the writing as a whole, North’s use of language is exceptional. Then there’s the way she goes about her philosophy openly, the obscurity near the beginning of the book there only due to the fact you’ve not yet realised what it’s all about.

And then the world turned, and someone tweeted something new, and everyone retweeted it and moved on, and nothing fucking changes.

The subjects are heavy, and North sends Charlie all round the world, showing that it’s not one place but the entirety. One of the more poetical, experimental aspects included – the only experimental (this is an easy enough read) – is the different number of repetitions of the words ‘human’ and ‘rat’ that are used in all parts of the book – both statements and sentences, and Charlie’s narrative. What is it to be human? What separates us from animals? When are we good or bad? There are a variety of ways this can be interpreted.

The one drawback is the book’s length. There is a lot to cover and it’s all excellent but there comes a point where Charlie’s journeys and the philosophy becomes less powerful simply due to the amount to think about. It’s a difficult one because it’s all important and relevant to North’s study but still just a bit too much, and there’s the possibility with it that you’ll become over-exposed to the point of it becoming less powerful.

But then is that the point? Is it, to reference a completely different book that nevertheless shares a few ideas, rather like The Hunger Games, wherein Suzanne Collins seems to be using over-exposure on purpose, making the reader reach a point where the absolute horrific violence ceases to produce a response because they’ve seen so much of it, and then using that lack of response to make her point? Is North showing you what she wants to both to the point where you ‘get’ what she’s saying but also to the point where you become so used to it that it’s easy to just keep reading without being constantly shocked, rather like we’re so used to seeing pictures of starving children in Africa and the many different charities that promote other causes that it becomes a sort of background worry, spoken about, but then left? It’s open to interpretation.

If you’re looking for either a literary book or a fantasy book this isn’t the one to go for because it’s both and neither at the same time and is the opposite of escapism. But you absolutely do want to make the time to read it and see for yourself. As much as any review can tell you what it’s about, there’s a great level of individual interpretation here, a resonance for each reader and, in a very unique way, there is something for everyone.

I received this book for review. The book has been shortlisted for the Young Writer of the Year Award.

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Lewis Carroll – Through The Looking-Glass

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Mirror mirror on the wall.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Children’s
ISBN: N/A
First Published: 1871
Date Reviewed: 29th November 2017
Rating: 3.5/5

Alice is playing with her chess pieces whilst cat Dinah tends to her kittens, but Alice isn’t happy where she is – there’s a big mirror over the mantelpiece showing the room in reverse and she wants to visit it. She goes up to the mirror to have a look, and finds she’s able to climb into it.

Through The Looking-Glass is the slightly lesser known sequel to Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland. Shorter to a fair degree, it shares a couple of the same Wonderland characters but is rather a lot different.

Speaking from an adult perspective, there isn’t any character development here – Alice is exactly the same as she was in the book published 6 years prior and she hasn’t learned anything from her previous time away, that is to say she’s as stubborn as she ever was. It’s an interesting factor because you might reasonably expect a character, particularly in a children’s book, and no matter the era it was written in, to learn something solid, but this book is very much about the fantasy.

Speaking more generally and thinking of the target age group, this is a fun book, just not as good as the first. There is no White Rabbit or Cheshire Cat, and whilst it appears at first glance as though the Mad Hatter and the Hare make an appearance, that appearance is deceiving – they appear to be different characters entirely. The story has a satisfactory concept – a game of chess with human/fantasy creatures, but it’s not as well-plotted as the first. It’s worth a read, but will disappoint if you’re – reasonably – expecting a second visit into Wonderland; this Wonderland sports the same strangeness of character but is otherwise quite different.

But it is fun and has a lot of content for both children and adults. Clever turns of phrase are the ruling factor. The poetry is out in full force. And well-known concepts – such as the afore-mentioned chess – are given a lot of time. There’s having to hurry up if you want to remain in the same place; there’s this:

“I see nobody on the road,” said Alice.
“I only wish I had such eyes,” the King remarked in a fretful tone. “To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance, too! Why, it’s as much as I can do to see real people, by this light!”

And there’s handing round a cake before one actively slices it. Lots of wordplay and thinking.

The relative shortness of Through The Looking-Glass is good – the story and characters are rather too strange for comfort and leaving the world is a bit of a relief; Alice might want to spend longer but it’s more nightmare than dream. It’s a good book but you’ll likely find the original better.

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