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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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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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Marian Keyes – The Break

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The paperback version of this book was released yesterday.

I can’t get used to living without you by my side… God knows got to make it on my own.

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Penguin)
Pages: 658
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-405-91875-6
First Published: 7th September 2017
Date Reviewed: 1st June 2018
Rating: 4/5

Amy has been married to Hugh for years. They have one daughter together, and they have Amy’s daughter from a previous marriage and a niece whose parents have never wanted her. Life isn’t perfect but they do okay and are fairly happy. But since Hugh’s father died, and then his best friend too, Hugh hasn’t been coping and one day he tells Amy that he needs to take a break from their marriage for six months, to go to South East Asia, live it up for a bit, and then return. It’s devastating news, but as her family remind her, it means Amy’s on a break too.

The Break is Keyes’ fifteenth full length novel and a whopper of a book. Standing at just over 650 pages (paperback, in shops as of yesterday) it is a fairly big reading commitment to make, but a heck of a good one.

Strictly speaking, the length of the book is too much – there is a lot of description that could easily have been edited out and parts of the story are drawn out too much – but the quality of the reading experience never waivers. It almost goes without saying after all this time, but Keyes’ is very good at taking a very ordinary situation and getting to the heart of the matter without it feeling so; whilst perhaps not as obviously funny as previous novels, the book sports that same light-hearted, easy reading, atmosphere as always, whilst digging deep into issues.

The first is of course the set up of the book. Devoting a great many pages to the consequences of not only Amy’s life during the break, but also spending a lot of time on the aftermath when Hugh returns, means that Keyes’ can spend a lot of time looking at the problems that outside of fiction we often want to sweep under the carpet for the sake of not looking to sentimental or depressive, bad company. This isn’t new, per se – Keyes’ This Charming Man, for example, dealt with even heavier issues very well several years ago – but the length of the book allows it to progress at a good pace; there will likely come a point where you wonder if the author ought not get to the ending already and whenever that occurs for you you’ll soon realise from the text the good reason. It’s a fair device that doesn’t often work – Keyes’ is a rare expert.

Whilst the main topic of the book is important but not, as said above, as heavy as others, there is an element of the plot that takes the story to a completely different level. Particularly in the context of the very recent Irish vote to repeal the eighth amendment, this book is incredibly timely; and in the context of its release in paperback yesterday, it’s worth picking up for the topic alone. Keyes’ explores the impact of an unwanted pregnancy on a teenager living in Ireland. The author looks at the legalities surrounding the wish for an abortion, the way the medical aspects must be attended to, the threat of prison if pills are discovered when packages enter customs from abroad, and the need and subsequent hassle and trauma of travelling to England for an abortion. Keyes does not hold back – whilst she never refers to herself the views are there prominently – and she puts forth the reality of the situation for women very well. The author also looks at the problems surrounding the public voicing of a pro-choice opinion in Ireland.

The characters are pretty great; there’s quite a lot of diversity and the plot points that arise due to the diversity round the book off well. Characters are well written and presented and a lot of time is given to the family element, where a whole other range of diversities rears its head in the family dynamics.

With such a set-up as a break, the ending of the book was always going to divide opinion, no matter which way it went. This is surely a big part of why Keyes spends so long working towards the conclusion; no matter whether you agree with the way she concludes Amy’s tale, you can at least rest assured that Keyes has provided a fully-fledged reasoning for it that works for the character’s happiness. Following this ending is a short epilogue that moves the action forward several years so that the children’s lives – whilst not the main aspect, they are a constant part of the story – can also be concluded.

The Break is a fun way to spend a chunk of your reading time – it offers an easy read but with ample things to take away, and most importantly it keeps you thinking and considering whilst you’re reading; a very good thing.

I received this book for review.

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Manu Joseph – Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous

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Or is she?

Publisher: Myriad Editions
Pages: 211
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-912-40810-8
First Published: 19th September 2017
Date Reviewed: 16th May 2018
Rating: 3.5/5

The day Hindu nationalists win the elections, a building collapses; Akhila arrives as teams are trying to find survivors and she offers to crawl through a tunnel to help a man who is still alive. The man is muttering about a person on his way to commit a terror attack. A member of the two groups chasing the man and the girl sat in the passenger seat next to him, Mukundan isn’t sure what they’re doing is right, and is sure there’s a better way of extracting the girl, but his boss bids him to wait.

Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous is a work of fiction which switches back and forth between a number of narratives as the author seeks to explore social injustice in its various forms.

This is a book that is at once an easy read, an uncomfortable read, and a hard-hitting read that requires your attention. Joseph’s use of satire and general slight humour often lures you into thinking it’s a fun novel. That may be part of the point – Joseph gets his thoughts across through via an easy writing style that’s nevertheless full of report-like phrasing.

Sometimes, the style and structure makes the book hard to follow – Joseph, a journalist away from his novel writing, has chosen to write his book in a similar style, and adds to it many different points of view. As an example, you might think that Akhila Iyer, the medical student and social media prankster who targets people in or close to the political sphere, will be moonlighting as this Miss Laila, and it takes a while for Joseph to get to Miss Laila herself wherein you have to get your head around the fact they are two different people.

Joseph’s major commentary apart from the controversies surrounding Mukundan’s story is the difference between rich and poor, high caste and low caste, Hindu and Muslim, and in the context of politics, and due to the basis of fact underlining the book. There is lots to consider here, with Joseph’s bold dialogue looking at both past and near present, holding nothing back. One person named outright is the author Arundhati Roy, who Joseph speaks of in the context of the female author’s visit to the house of a very wealthy person and her views about how much money this person had compared to those nearby; Joseph takes his Akhila Iyer to Roy’s own apartment building where she conducts an interview with a woman who says similarly of Roy’s house. (Whether this is truth or fiction this reviewer cannot say.)

So, to the narratives, you have the man trapped inside a fallen building. You have the narrative of Akhila Iyer, often told in the chapters focused on Professor Vaid as her own narrative is taken up by the collapsed building; occasionally you hear from Akhila about her family, the mother that was often away helping other people as an activist, leaving her daughter to grow up without her. (A lot of Joseph’s commentary is about activism and the way it can simply just switch people’s situations until another wave of activism is required, the once powerful becoming the powerless and then powerful again.) You have the narrative of Mukundan, who tails Laila and Jamal, and the narrative Laila’s sister tells of the days before Laila left with Jamal. And you have the narrative of election winner, Damodarhabi.

A revelation comes towards the end that may lessen the impact of what you’ve read. It’s a good idea going into this book, to consider that the non-linear timeline might expand.

Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous is a difficult book to make a call on. Some of it is excellent – compelling points, good writing – but it does come across more as an essay or piece of reporting rather than a story or study.

I received this book for review.

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Yaa Gyasi – Homegoing

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Homegoing was on the British Book Award shortlist for the Debut Book of the Year 2018.

History is not always confined.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 298
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-97523-7
First Published: 7th June 2016
Date Reviewed: 14th May 2018
Rating: 5/5

Effia’s mother tells her to keep the beginning of her menstruation a secret. It’s long been known that Effia would marry the man next in line to be Chief but Baaba has something else in mind and Effia is traded in marriage to the white governor of the Castle. As she moves away with James, Baaba tells her daughter that she is not related to her and that her mother abandoned them. As Effia’s new life begins, her unknown half-sister is taken prisoner, held with hundreds of other women, about to be sold into slavery overseas. The sisters’ situations will reverberate down the ages.

Homegoing is a superb mainly-historical novel that starts in 1700s Ghana and continues into our present century. Spanning many generations, it spends a number of pages on each character in turn, nevertheless retaining the sense that it is a novel of one story.

Gyasi has created something rather remarkable. Within moments she sucks you into the story, her use of history in all contexts – the writing of it, the knowledge included, the bringing to life – starts it off, and then her masterful characterisation ensures you don’t let go. In terms of the history, there’s a fair amount of information that often gets looked over, as well as the horrors that continue.

The writing is wonderfully descriptive and Gyasi creates the perfect balance of narrative and dialogue. It flows very well; indeed the only negative aspect of the book is the use of ‘off of’, the only thing that stunts the flow.

But at its heart, beyond the subject matter that we’ll go on to in a minute, is that characterisation. There are few books in which multiple narratives are considered to be equally fine. Gyasi’s is one of those few. No matter how invested you are in any one story (which read almost as vignettes despite the time they span; there are no complete endings within a character’s chapter, the only closure is in the descendant’s chapter) you never once feel that sense of loss so often caused by other multi-narrative novels. Would it be nice if there was more of each character’s story? Of course. But the novel does not suffer for the lack of it. The progression is natural and easy to follow; Gyasi includes hints early on and you soon get used to the flicking back and forth between bloodlines. If you do fall behind – and you will when it comes to working out which generation you’re on to – there’s a family tree in the opening pages.

As it’s pretty obvious from the start – or at least from the moment you realise how Gyasi has plotted the book – that somewhere it’s highly likely the two bloodlines will meet in some way, it’s pertinent here to say that the book isn’t predictable on that count. This isn’t your usual ‘and magic happened and they found out who each other was’. There is indeed ‘magic’ in the book – to use the phrase that people down the ages start to refer to traditional spirituality as – and yes there is a meeting of the bloodlines, but there are no unbelieveable discoveries.

On the subject of symbolism is Gyasi’s use of fire and water, with fire particularly pronounced because water is more obviously associated with the beginning. It’s a gentle, weaving sort of symbolism, that takes you through the various generations, creating an impact – the history of a people on their descendants – as well as a sort of coming-of-age, cycling, taking back ownership.

Apart from symbolism, Gyasi explores the slave trade, particularly, as said, in terms of the beginnings and early impact in Ghana. She explores the affects of the difference between the Northern and Southern states and the impact of Southern laws on free men of the North. She explores segregation, the concept of passing, and tensions and social and political problems still occurring today. These explorations are interlaced with the chapters so that black history in America as a whole is explored in depth. Again, Gyasi’s writing makes everything flow together, showing how they are both separate subjects and part of a whole, and as with everything else the author does it with aplomb.

Homegoing is the sort of novel that stays with you, that you want to return to. In the second to last chapter, Marjorie is asked by her teacher if she feels the book she is reading inside of her. I think we all know that feeling, the one that makes reading so worth it.

You may well find it in this book.

I received this book for review.

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