I am not a reader of Award-Winning Books. See my posts here and here for proof of this — and I don’t think the situation has improved much in the last two years. But some times you hear so much buzz and chatter about a book that you have to check it out. Particularly when you luck into a copy of said book. And Colson Whitehead’s the Underground Railroad was one of those books. I’d heard everybody on the Bookriot podcasts that I listen to talking about how excited they were for something new from Whitehead – and then about how brilliant it was. It kept popping up in lists of hotly anticipated books. It was an Oprah Bookclub pick. It was on President Obama’s summer reading list.
The Underground Railroad tells the story of Cora, a slave on a brutal cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is more terrible than you can imagine, especially for Cora who is an outcast among her fellow Africans. When Caesar, a recent arrival at the plantation suggests that they escape together, they take a terrifying risk to try and get to the Underground Railroad. But it doesn’t go according to plan, and Cora’s journey is fraught with dangers as there are hunters after them, dogging their every move. In Whitehead’s world the railroad is real – actual trains in tunnels under the southern states with a network of drivers and conductors ferrying runaways to safety.
This is such a powerful book. It’s beautifully written, but oh so difficult to read – I’ve had to take it in bite-sized chunks so that I can digest it properly – but it’s worth it. It makes you confront harsh and terrible truths about what people have done to each other and are capable of doing to each other. But it’s also compelling and personal and page turning and clever. Whatever I say here, I won’t be able to do it justice. I still haven’t finished digesting it and I’m going to be thinking about it for some time to come. It’s going to win all the awards – and it deserves to. It’s already won the National Book Award in the US and is Amazon.com editor’s Number 1 Book of the Year. In years to come it’s going to be on English Literature syllabuses. Well, well, well worth your time.
I would expect this to be somewhere prominent on a table or on a front facing shelf in bookshops. It’s in hardback at the moment – and you can get it from Amazon (out of stock at time of writing, which says a lot), Waterstones and Foyles and on Kindle and Kobo. It might make it into the supermarkets, but I’d be surprised. The paperback is out in June. I’m off to read some more of Whitehead’s work.