The Underground Railroad

By Colson Whitehead

Little, Brown Book Group

Settling down to any book which has garnered stellar reviews means your expectations are inevitably raised. That the book has also been recommended by Oprah Winfrey – who selected it for her book club – and President Obama in his 2016 summer reading list heightens the anticipation even further. So, does The Underground Railroad live up to its billing?

Yes – and then some.

Quite simply, this is a magnificent piece of work. By turns powerful, exciting, horrific, moving and thrilling, the writing by author Colson Whitehead is spellbinding. It grabs you tight and stays with you, long after reluctantly laying the book down.

Our heroine is Cora. A slave enduring the horrors of life on a cotton plantation in the deep south. Hers is a life of terror and drudgery, one that witnesses (and experiences) scenes of horrific violence on a daily basis. There is hope of escape but alas no means. That is, until she is approached by a fellow slave, Caesar.  From him we learn about the existence of the mysterious Underground Railroad, a secret means of escape to the North and freedom (of sorts). After some initial reluctance, she decides to follow in the footsteps of her mother, who abandoned her as a child in order to make her own bid for freedom.

Whitehead’s fast-moving narrative blends immense literary skill with a superb knack for storytelling. In his conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor but actual solid infrastructure, buried beneath the southern soil and consisting of platforms, trains and heroic station managers and drivers. Under Whitehead’s pen this magical construction is believable and real. It enables Cora and Caesar’s initial escape to what appears at first to be the safer harbour of South Carolina, and then onwards through a journey of many twists and turns.

Hot on their heels is Ridgeway, slave catcher extraordinaire. A villain whose fires of pursuit rage after his failure to catch Cora’s mother in years gone past.

Cora’s experiences on the run are punctuated by scenes of almost unimaginable violence and terror. Yet such wickedness is merely an accurate rendering of the reality of slavery. Whitehead, rightly, does not shy away from these horrors. They permeate through what is an extraordinary and important novel. A novel for the ages. A novel for the masses. And a novel that deserves every plaudit coming its away.

Go read it – you won’t be disappointed.

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