Book Review – The Underground Railroad

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Title- The Underground Railroad
Author- Colson Whitehead
Published- 2016
Genre- Literary Fiction
Length- 306 pages
Rating- 3/5

Synopsis (Goodreads)- Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for all the slaves but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood – where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned and, though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.

In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor – engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven – but the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. Even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

Review- This is a difficult book to rate, for reasons I will explain below.

I had been wanting this book for a long time and really expected to love it. It came out in America before it did here and I nearly bought it there at what would have been a much higher price because I was so keen to read it. I’m glad I didn’t.

When I was little, Underground to Canada was one of my favourite books, and I expected this to be the same really, just a bit more “grown up”. Both books are about the same general topic, slaves trying to escape, but while Underground to Canada was an enjoyable read, this was not.

I know this book has had a lot of hype but there are some books that seemingly get hype  for “political” reasons. People seem to feel that, because the topic of a book is an important one, they have to like it, so they claim to, even when they don’t. I think this is that kind of book.

Firstly, in terms of story, this was actually pretty good, the majority of it was interesting and in her quest for freedom Cora goes through a lot, she goes to many different places and a lot happens in each. The way the story is told is where the problems lie.

The first 60 or 70 pages were a chore to get through, I nearly gave up several times, which is really not something I often do. I felt like the author was more interested in trying to come across as clever, than in actually telling the story. There were parts where it read as though he had used a thesaurus for every other word and it was a lot of effort to dig through the language to get to the actual story.

This issue with the language also meant mistakes were made. For example, a character would be mentioned by name and the next sentence would be referring to “he” repeatedly, but the “he” was someone different entirely. There were also big chunks of text talking about a character that hadn’t been introduced yet, it was confusing, often it just wasn’t clear for long periods who was being referred to. There were also a lot of characters, particularly early on and it meant it was hard to keep track of who everyone was. I would say that about thirty different people were mentioned.

The middle of this book was much better than the start. The language calmed down and you could concentrate on the story. Towards the end, things went downhill again. It wasn’t as bad as the start, the language wasn’t as ridiculous, but the story became a bit boring, not terrible, but not at its previous level.

So, the story was mostly good, some of the writing was ok, but some was incredibly frustrating so like I said, it was difficult to rate this book. I have given it a 3/5 overall. I wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend it.

Has anyone else read this? Am I being too harsh?

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8 thoughts on “Book Review – The Underground Railroad

  1. I have heard from others that his writing it not the best. I was really looking forward to reading this book, much like you were. I have it sitting on the shelf, but now I am thinking maybe an audiobook would be better to listen to than read this book.

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