In his deservedly lauded novel, Colson Whitehead tells the story of Cora, a teenage girl who escapes from a brutal cotton plantation in Georgia where she has been enslaved all her life. Her friend, Caesar, leads Cora to the Underground Railroad.
Historically, the phrase described a network of abolitionists who aided escapees. In Colson Whitehead's fantasy, it becomes a literal railway with an unpredictable timetable and secret network of stations; a bizarre, steampunk, hellish vision of uncertainty: public transport for people with nowhere to go and no-one to trust.
Cora sets off on an Odyssey, never knowing if the mysterious railroad will deliver her somewhere better or worse than the last stop. She's told to look out of the train window to see the real America, but as her hope of finding sanctuary fades, she comes to realise a bleak truth: all she can ever see out of the window of an underground train, is more darkness.
Colson Whitehead's writing is lyrical but devoid of hyperbole. Instead he leaves you with snapshots of cruelty; I had to put the book aside for a short while after reading about a slave who was whipped for the duration of the plantation owners' dinner party, prompting his guests to amuse themselves by eating more slowly. The use of real historical 'Wanted' notices from slavers seeking run-aways makes the reader painfully aware that these snapshots could well be Polaroids from the past.
There's so much to say about this novel - theses will no doubt be written - so I have narrowed it down to three reasons why everyone should read this book.
1. The language... Colson Whitehead pulls off some kind of magic trick and I will have to re-read the novel to work out how he does it with such subtlety - the modern language is tinged with the antique. He never degenerates into broad stokes of sepia-tones or patois-laden dialect, but the historical filter is strong.
2. The genre... already an author renowned for criss-crossing genre boundaries, Colson Whitehead seamlessly incorporates his vast imagination into Cora's Odyssey. The railroad transports her to 'paradise' and hell, and each of these worlds is unique, fully-formed, and yet blends in.
3. The reality... the book has been described as magical realism or fantasy, but is steeped in realism. Cora hides in an attic in a clear allusion to Anne Frank and the holocaust. The plight of the slaves is compared to the genocide of Native Americans. Colson Whitehead makes no direct comment on modern racial politics in the US, but he doesn't need to: it's all there on the page, in black and white, for anyone with a heart to read.