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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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Eloisa James – This Duchess Of Mine

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Working with stereotypes.

Publisher: Avon (HarperCollins)
Pages: 370
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-061-62682-1
First Published: 26th May 2009
Date Reviewed: 15th October 2018
Rating: 3/5

The Beaumont line needs an heir and Jemma wants her husband to be by her side. Knowing she’s not getting any younger and seeing her friends happily paired up, Jemma looks at getting close to Elijah through a few rounds of flirtation; she knows he won’t be wooed in the regular fashion and might take better to being flirted with by someone else. Meanwhile, Elijah has discovered it’s high time he made an effort to be with his wife; nine years of a long-distance marriage to the woman he loves, and a hapless cousin for an heir, mean he’s looking to change things.

This Duchess Of Mine is the fifth and penultimate book in James’ Desperate Duchesses series, and focuses on the ‘leading’ couple of the group of friends.

This book isn’t as strong as the others. The romance isn’t particularly well-written or plotted and there are a lot of conveniences and devices used. Nor is the editing as good, in fact it seems the book is suffering from the ‘author knows best’ or ‘editor won’t touch famous author’s work’ idea that goes along with further works – whereas James’ prose and use of language in general has previously been very good, This Duchess Of Mine is full of contemporary American English that doesn’t match its 1700s England setting.

The romance takes its time; when it finally does get there, it’s rather too cute and perfect. There’s a major lack of chemistry between the pair, meaning that the flirtation and subsequent sex scenes don’t really work – you would expect to feel the love between the characters but that’s difficult.

However – and I realise I’m going back and forth between positive and negative points here – the devices James’ uses are interesting in their historical context. There’s not a ton of focus on them of course, but the information about what appear to be the Roman Baths in Bath, and the inclusion of Dr Withering, a real person who worked on cures for heart conditions using foxgloves, are good. (The Roman Baths are, during the course of the book, provided with funding to restore/develop them further, which fits enough with the time period in which they were truly developed – the 1800s – to say it’s a plausible plot point.)

In terms of the book in general, the best parts are the chess games and the secondary plot of Villiers’ plight at finding a wife, the necessary set-up to his own book which follows.

Perhaps it’s the lack of previous characters – Jemma and Elijah have played a role in everyone else’s lives but here only Villiers walks onto the stage. And perhaps that was something the author wanted in particular – few friends this time, after all the time Jemma has spent with others – but it doesn’t feel the same, especially when so much that occurs in this book has already occurred. (Jemma and Elijah’s story has been in place for a while and by the point of this book really ought to have been quick.) Perhaps, too, it’s the sheer lack of comedy compared to the other books. There are many reasons it doesn’t work.

Read it if you’ve read the others and want to complete the series, but you could easily skip this book in favour of moving straight to #6. Or at least skip the epilogue, which moves several decades forward in time and is at odds with the here-and-now mode of the rest of the saga.

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Colm Tóibín – Brooklyn

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Concrete jungle where dreams are made of… or pressed upon.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 250
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-141-04174-2
First Published: 5th May 2009
Date Reviewed: 4th October 2018
Rating: 3.5/5

Ireland in the 1950s and Eilis, recently having left school, is living with her mum and sister. There aren’t many jobs available but she manages to get Sunday work at a grocers her mother dislikes. She’s happy with life as it is, but one day her mother and sister start talking to her about sending her to New York where there are lots of opportunities. She goes, reluctantly, and begins a new life, but it’s hard forgetting home when you didn’t want to leave it.

Brooklyn is the acclaimed novel by Tóibín that looks at a young person’s emigration away from all she knows. Shorter than some, it offers some interesting descriptions, circumstances, and knowledge, but never really ‘goes’ anywhere despite the literal journey Eilis makes.

What’s good in this book is the use of time period and situation. Tóibín brings the era to life masterfully, writing descriptions that provide enough for you to create a good image in your head of the way things look, both the location and the people. He doesn’t describe everything – most readers will know the basics about the 50s after all, given its ‘vintage’ status – but it is more than enough.

There is also the social angle, which is only a minor feature but means that parts of the book are compelling; the regular life occurrences such as dances and movie nights, but also the racism between immigrants, and the changes that came with allowing black people to move in previously white-only spaces. Tóibín does not spend long on these, and more’s the pity, because they’re the highlight.

The storytelling in itself is fair. Language is generally good. Reasons for character decisions, whilst not often reasonable in terms of what we’d think now or what the reader themselves might do, are accounted for.

However the novel falls down a few levels when it comes to characterisation. A number of the secondary characters, in part, for certain, due to their role as secondary characters, are developed a fair amount – developed as much as they are needed to be. But Eilis is largely vague. She is very passive and easily replaceable.

The problem here is that Eilis never makes decisions for herself, something that becomes incredibly apparent during the last section of the book wherein she lets a lot of people walk all over her, keeps secrets, and goes along with things that she ought to consider ludicrous. It is difficult to talk about without giving away a small piece of information that may or may not be considered a spoiler – included in this book is Eilis’ return journey to Ireland. She’s not intending to return for good, having a specific reason for going back for a short time, as many people would have (hence why it’s not exactly a spoiler to reveal it).

Although Eilis had been making ‘decisions’ based on what other people were pushing her to do before this, her lack of agency in the last section is particularly frustrating and unfortunately, whilst you’d expect Tóibín to do something about it at the end, to show Eilis coming into her own, he does not. Whether or not that was something he purposefully excluded to create a discussion is hard to say; it’s fair to say Eilis’ sister had good reason for putting Eilis on the boat, and that Eilis is and likely always was the victim of emotional manipulation, but whilst Tóibín allows you to see this, somewhat, he does nothing to change Eilis’ situation. And whilst that in itself is not bad, because it can be hard for someone in her position to find herself, there needed to be something from Tóibín, even if just a direct, single line, on why Eilis is so passive. It might have helped account for the strange turns Eilis’ ‘choices’ take and definitely would have given the story a bit of action.

Therefore you have a book with wonderful world-building and writing, a book that you won’t want to put down, but ultimately there is no real story here except of constant indecision and pressure, and a sudden and completely unsatisfactory ending. Again, perhaps this is something the author was actively looking to achieve, because it certainly creates a reaction, but that doesn’t help make Brooklyn any better.

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Özgür Mumcu – The Peace Machine

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The mechanical dove.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 215
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-27394-3
First Published: 2016; 31st May 2018 in English
Date Reviewed: 24th September 2018
Rating: 2.5/5

Original language: Turkish
Original title: Bariş Makinesi (Peace Machine)
Translated by: Mark David Wyers

In the very early 1900s, Celal, an orphan living in Turkey, saves the life of a wealthy man, and the wealthy man adopts him. When Celal grows up he becomes an erotic novelist, sending chapters one by one in secret to Paris where they are printed in a basement and distributed. On a trip to France, Celal is questioned by a policeman who doesn’t want to arrest him, in fact he wants to give him a script by a friend to look over. The script includes the name of Celal’s adopted father and discusses the idea of a machine that would wipe out hatred by disposing of free will.

The Peace Machine is a historical novel about the politics in early 20th century Serbia (public anger that led to the May Coup when the king and his commoner queen were assassinated) and the countries allied with the opposing side. Involving slight magical realism, the book sports an interesting premise but quickly becomes confusing.

The basics of this novel are good. The setting is intriguing – the history’s interesting anyway, but the way in which Mumcu describes it is great, pulling you in from the start. The way Celal’s writing career goes on and the spots of magical realism around are fantastic. And the look into the revolt against the Serbian monarchy is good, too.

But a lot is missed out – the narrative jumps from one situation to another, with Celal moving around for vague reasons; the politics isn’t explained particularly well – unless you’ve a lot of knowledge you have to research it to understand, and even then it’s confusing. The machine itself is barely included, only at the tail end of the narrative, and not described in much detail. It’s ironic, perhaps, that no one in the book is likeable; when they are all looking to make the world peaceful by altering people’s souls with an electrical device one can’t but look askance of the extreme violence that they show to each other, and to others.

A more detailed plot, more developed characters, and more reasoning beyond philosophical concepts, would have made The Peace Machine a better book. As it is, it’s very difficult to get into for more than a few pages at a time, the narrative putting scene changes before information.

I received this book for review.

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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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