Review: The Underground Railroad

Colson Whitehead’s much-lauded sixth novel The Underground Railroad is a tale about the hideous legacy of slavery in America, a work that combines the conventions of literary realism with a plot that collapses real history and a literalised central metaphor. It’s a meticulously crafted text: everything on the page is there for a reason, serves Whitehead’s specific aesthetic goals. And yet while I can appreciate its craft, I don’t feel I really got it on an emotional level.

The story’s central figure is Cora, a runaway slave who takes the underground railroad – here figured as a real railway, complete with tunnels, trains and stationmasters – north, visiting a new state and experiencing new forms of racism at each stop. In South Carolina, for instance, her first stop after the horrors of the plantation she grew up on, she’s employed and comfortably housed by a seemingly benevolent state government which is, nevertheless, conducting medical experiments on Black people without their consent, in an echo of the real-life Tuskegee study that took place for 40 years between 1932 and 1972; in North Carolina, meanwhile, she finds a state that has recently banned Black people from existing within its borders, and spends several months in the attic of a terrified white abolitionist.

In the latter episode, I think, lies the key to one of the reasons why the novel didn’t have the same sledgehammer impact on me that it had on much of the literary establishment: I didn’t realise as I was reading it just how counterfactual it was. North Carolina never did ban Black people, which in hindsight seems like an obvious statement, except that American anti-Black sentiment was and is so incredibly vehement, and the real tortures inflicted on Black slaves so horrific, that at this point I’m prepared to believe nearly anything. And, anyway: North Carolina did pass a law in 1741 that, incredibly, forced slaves who were freed for service to the state to leave within six months, as well as a slew of laws later on that were clearly aimed at limiting the influx of Black slaves into the state. This is symptomatic of how the book works: it tells nearly-truths to clarify the various forms American racism has taken in the past and still takes today. The unmooring of the structural inequalities facing Cora from time and from actual history is supposed to force us fully to appreciate the effects of those inequalities, to shock us into new understanding.

It’s a tactic familiar from many SFF novels; but because (unlike in many “purer” SFF texts) Whitehead combines these nearly-truths with full historical truths such as his depiction of life as a slave on a plantation, it relies for its full effectiveness, to a much greater extent than most SFF, on the reader having a good enough feel for the actual history to tell the counterfactual from the factual. For whatever reason – I suspect a combination of my being British, not American, and the paucity of teaching about Black history in British schools – I didn’t have that knowledge; so The Underground Railroad fell rather flat for me.

I don’t think this is precisely the book’s fault; rather, it’s a peculiarity of that mysterious intersection between book and reader. I failed, in other words, to meet the book in the middle. Which is a shame, because Whitehead looks to be doing some really interesting things with speculative fiction and racism – he certainly handles the speculative material in The Underground Railroad with a much surer hand than I’m used to seeing from primarily litfic authors. And, as I wrote here, I also found his most recent, and thoroughly non-speculative, novel The Nickel Boys a beautifully crafted gut-punch of a read, short and perfectly formed for what it was doing. The Underground Railroad may not quite have succeeded for me, but I’d still really like to get my hands on Whitehead’s other work.

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