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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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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Americanah

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Working with stereotypes.

Publisher: Fourth Estate (HarperCollins)
Pages: 475
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-007-35634-8
First Published: 14th May 2013
Date Reviewed: 8th October 2018
Rating: 5/5

Ifemelu met Obinze at a party – everyone expected him to be interested in one of her friends. After an initial romance, Ifemelu leaves Nigeria to go to university in America, and once there she comes to discover that she is black. Working as a writer in the industry, she later starts a blog on the subject of race in America, becoming very popular. Meanwhile Obinze looks to get into Britain, but finds it hard to gain a visa despite his status in Nigeria. He doesn’t understand why Ifemelu ended contact, and sometimes, neither does she.

The above is the bare basics of this complex book. Americanah is both a commentary on the concept of race in America – African American, black, in particular – and a romance with a bit of ‘finding oneself’ included. Told in sections, moving between Ifemelu and Obinze, and moving back and forward in time, it studies its major subject to excellent effect.

The variety of conversation in this book would be difficult to list, especially without spoiling some of the plot. It is huge, encompassing a great many thoughts, general ideas, specifics, and from all manner of viewpoints; the characters’ moves from Nigeria to America, and Nigeria to London, enable Adichie to study her subject thus. There’s the Nigerian perspective that takes into account the perspective of the African continent in general through the use of other characters, and how ‘black’ isn’t a thing there. There’s the concept of there being no such thing as race, from various perspectives, and the breaking down into pieces of all of them as commentary. Adichie uses Ifemelu’s experiences her, with the character experiencing racism as a new ‘black’ person, the conversations black Americans have amongst themselves and with others of different races, conversations where Ifemelu is the only non-white person, and so on. The character tends to question everything. And then there are her own thoughts, that are used for her blog, her commentary drawn from her boyfriends, and various privileges.

What’s interesting here – beyond all of the above, of course – is that Ifemelu isn’t a particularly likeable person; the author has commentary happen through the use of the character but not only develops her into her own person away from that but makes it so that you’ve a mix of stunning inner thoughts and actions that aren’t always nice, are, in fact, often selfish. It’s a bold move on Adichie’s part that rounds off the whole novel with aplomb. Ifemelu is nice enough for you to keep reading, and then there’s Obinze to take over when she becomes too much, his character representation an entirely different world to the one Ifemelu moves in and objectively being a much better character in terms of reader enjoyment. His life in Britain offers the perspective of immigrants in the current political climate – that which would soon aid the lead to a Brexit vote – poverty, and the working class in general. (The book was written before Brexit; there is more of a focus on the reason for immigration on those who travel, rather than the thoughts of those already in the country.) Obinze’s life is more of an extra when it comes to commentary; Adichie uses him more for general narrative purposes and the novel is all the stronger for it, having therefore both a good plot and good commentary.

The romance is very much a secondary, almost tertiary part of the novel. Due to Ifemelu’s personality and choices it is obviously not developed as much as it might have been otherwise but is still written well in accordance with the rest – it’s a romance that’s not great because it’s been planned to be so.

There is a general look at Nigeria on its own terms, both at the beginning before Ifemelu’s move and some increases in time spent on it as Ifemelu inevitably compares her life before and after.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that Americanah minors in books – it’s a book about books. The main characters share a love of literature, particularly classics and famous contemporary books, and there are a good few discussions. Literature and literary education is one of the main factors of their chemistry, and Adichie, somewhat understandably for an author, doesn’t scrimp on details.

Americanah is a feat of writing. The sheer amount of commentary included, the number of angles and takes on each subject and the dedication to covering it in detail is incredible. There’s a reason this book is so long. To read it is to take on a study, but also a tome full of enjoyment. It is quite an undertaking but it’s worth it.

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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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Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar

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When things on the outside seem to be going well but they are actually not.

Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages: 234
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-571-22616-0
First Published: 14th January 1963
Date Reviewed: 10th September 2018
Rating: N/A (4.5/5 in usual terms of literary enjoyment and study)

Esther has always been an A grade student. Now, working for a ladies’ magazine in New York during a break, she struggles to get things right, and when she leaves the magazine to go back home she finds she hasn’t been accepted onto the summer course she had planned her holiday around. Along with this, she has a perpetual problem with a set of parents who want her to marry their son; she dislikes the boy and his pompous attitude. Somewhat related to this, she is afraid of what sex can mean for a woman, as well as annoyed at the double standards for women and men. Lastly, she misses her father. This all comes to a head and she beings to feel that life isn’t worth living.

The Bell Jar, set in the 1950s when the author was at university, is Plath’s famous novel, a book that is highly autobiographical and succeeds in being both enjoyable on a literary level, and in giving you a lot of information about Plath and her struggles with clinical depression. (The title references the feeling the character has of living in a bell jar.) Published a month before her death, the book has inevitably been viewed not only in the context of itself and Plath’s younger years, but in the context of her death. And it is hard to write about it without referring to her. (It’s also difficult not to talk about the ‘plot’ extensively, though I have tried to leave as much as possible out of this review.)

This is a dark book. There are times when Plath is graphic in her descriptions of what Esther does in terms of self-harm, and the various ways she considers killing herself. There is a lot about the hospitals and treatments she undergoes, things we would now consider barbaric. Yet there is also a distinct lightness to the text, most prominent in the first handful of chapters but also eked out even until the end of the book, where Plath, whether consciously or not, lifts the text from the darkness. It is in these sections that her talent most often shines through, however the times in which you can see another reason for her depression rearing its head are also full of thoughts and the phrasing of those thoughts, that show further literary talent.

Two chief areas in this regard are female agency and sex. Plath writes her thoughts about the double standard that applied to men and women, using the story of her forced sort-of relationship with Buddy Willard (either largely or somewhat true to life) when he tells her he’s slept with women, and she later muses on the fact that society would expect her to be a virgin if/when she married but that that isn’t fair. Following this she looks at the way a woman would have a baby and her life would change forever but a man could be a father and be the same person as before.

I also remembered Buddy Willard saying in a sinister, knowing way that after I had children I would feel differently, I wouldn’t want to write poems any more. So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterwards you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.

With these and other subjects, namely her potential change in career prospects and her memories of her father, The Bell Jar gives you a fair grounding in why Plath/Esther was depressed, and although it begins and ends at university, it shows the sorts of thoughts and feelings that would have taken Plath further in her writing career and added to the problems she found in her marriage.

It’s worth reading up about Plath’s life in context with what is in the book – for example the shock treatments included are actually taken from the work of Mary Jane Ward, whose semi-autobiographical book The Snake Pit featured them1, as well as the relationships she had with Dick Norton and Richard Sassoon that influenced Buddy and Irwin.

Plath had the book published under a pseudonym as she didn’t want her mother to know she had written in, worrying about her reaction, but whilst there is dislike, there’s empathy there, too:

Hadn’t my own mother told me that as soon as she and my father left Reno on their honeymoon – my father had been married before, so he needed a divorce – my father said to her, ‘Whew, that’s a relief, now we can stop pretending and be ourselves’? – and from that day on my mother never had a minutes’ peace.

In terms of study, whilst most of the book relates directly to Plath, there is enough about society in general to take away from it, and due to Plath’s work and career, a fair amount about literature and poetry, albeit that names have been changed (they’re easy enough to find out). There’s also Plath’s use of terms we would now consider racist that set the book firmly in its time and show how terminology would be used even when there was no aim to be actively discriminatory.

As much as it’s an autobiography The Bell Jar is also a real work of literature, with so much attention to detail having been put into it. It is absolutely worth reading, just be cautious of timing – whilst there is a lot of true enjoyment to be had, and whilst it’s quite short, it can and will take a toll on you whilst you are reading it.

Footnotes

1 From Wikipedia, date unknown (a): ‘Plath later stated that she had seen reviews of The Snake Pit and believed the public wanted to see “mental health stuff,” so she deliberately based details of Esther’s hospitalization on the procedures and methods outlined in Ward’s book.’ (But it seems Plath experienced similar treatments herself – see Wikipedia n.d. b.)

Online References

Wikipedia (n.d. -a) The Bell Jar, Wikipedia.org, accessed 10th September 2018.
Wikipedia (n.d. -b) Sylvia Plath, Wikipedia.org, accessed 10th September 2018.

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Rosie Travers – The Theatre Of Dreams

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Lights, camera, and action… are all badly needed by this group of people.

Publisher: Crooked Cat
Pages: 300
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-721-12292-9
First Published: 1st August 2018
Date Reviewed: 21st August 2018
Rating: 4/5

Actress Tara’s director boyfriend becomes interested in a rising reality star and the resulting fallout shatters Tara’s professional image. When she receives a letter from an elderly woman, inviting her to take over a dance school (the real reason is to help save the old pavilion) she decides to go for it, moving from London to the south coast. But there’s more to Kitty’s request than she included in the letter, more than any meetings and debates with councils.

The Theatre Of Dreams is a contemporary story of historical conservation, with a healthy dose of mystery. Told via two characters, one in the first person, the other in the third, it gives a good view of the past and present and ensures all questions, whether explained openly to other characters or not, are answered for the reader.

Travers has constructed a good tale; seemingly nice but ordinary for a while, there comes a point where the first mystery element makes an appearance, and this then runs parallel to the main story, pushing the interest up several levels. It adds a completely new dimension and genres that move the novel, particularly the final third, into page-turner territory, somewhere between a casual whodunnit and a cosy mystery, whilst never losing the easy-going nature of the narrative.

Characterisation is fair, with most time understandably going to Tara, who gets a complete, realistic, life change. She’s as important as the fight to save the pavilion.

The pavilion itself is what the story revolves around but it would be prudent not to expect to see a result here – the book is about the journey to start the restoration rather than about the restoration itself, with Kitty desperate to find a way out of the bind her family have put her in of selling off the pavilion to developers. The fictional history looks at stories from factual places (the building is based on Lee-On-Solent’s old Lee Tower) and calls to mind similar, factual, stories of campaigns to save history.

There’s but one issue and that’s in the book as a product; there are a lot of proofreading errors – spelling, grammar – that, whilst not on every page, are numerous enough to be noticeable and do on occasion mean you have to stop reading to work out the meaning behind the sentence. The language itself is good and Travers’ style confident – the errors are an editing stage problem.

Besides the errors, the book is great. It’s one you can pick up for a chapter or two but quickly find yourself wanting to carve out time for, and the subtle elements of mystery that Travers includes make you want to race through the end to find out what’s happened.

I’ve met the author a couple of times.

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