By Freya Neason
After studying slavery last year as part of my History degree, I have been meaning to read this novel for a while and I was delighted that its nomination for the Man Booker Prize 2017 gave me the impetus to do so. In this story, the figurative underground railroad which helped innumerable slaves to escape to freedom takes a literal form. The reader follows the story of Cora as she attempts to make a break from the terrors of her chattel life.
The most successful aspect of this novel is Whitehead’s complex and multi-layered portrayal of the institution of slavery in antebellum America. It is easy for the modern mind to imagine that all slaves had identically traumatic personal histories, identical stories of escape and identical conceptions of freedom. However, the range of characters and their corresponding experiences and opinions in this novel disproves this misconception. I especially enjoyed Whitehead’s portrayal of plantation life, even if it was limited to the start of the novel. Cora’s status as a ‘hob’ woman (a term for those ostracised from the rest of the group for a variety of reasons) highlights the existence of superiority and inferiority within slave communities, further reinstating that being ‘a slave’ was not a homogeneous experience.
Despite this book coming so highly recommended I was, unfortunately, slightly underwhelmed with Whitehead’s writing style and the general readability of this novel. Undeniably, the prose is peppered with some beautiful and thoughtful sentences that demand to be re-read. However, these were more often than not superseded by less melodic and more clunky writing. The organisation and structure of this novel was also disappointing. The chapters confusingly flit between focusing on areas or people and as a result it is difficult to get into the beginning of each section. This prevented The Underground Railroad from being the real page turner I wanted it to be.
I had such high expectations for this book so it was always going to be difficult for them to be met. However, despite having some criticisms, I did thoroughly enjoy this novel. It is a highly insightful, harrowing and imaginative look at a story that needs to be continuously told throughout human history so that its horrors are never forgotten. Ultimately, if this novel won I would not be disappointed.
Image: Katie Butler