As if we needed any more reason to mourn the passing of Barack Obama’s presidency, it’s difficult to believe that either of his potential successors will share his fine taste in books. His 2016 summer holiday reading – released by the White House’s press department – not only included Helen Macdonald’s sublime H Is for Hawk, but also Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Bringing this brutal, vital, devastating novel to a wider audience (it has also been selected by Oprah’s book club) will not be the least of Obama’s legacies...I haven’t been as simultaneously moved and entertained by a book for many years. This is a luminous, furious, wildly inventive tale that not only shines a bright light on one of the darkest periods of history, but also opens up thrilling new vistas for the form of the novel itself.
For all that this is a novel in which a different reality from the actual record arises, this is a work rooted very much in real history, real suffering. Whitehead’s acknowledgments extend to Franklin D Roosevelt “for funding the Federal Writers’ project, which collected the life stories of former slaves in the 1930s”. The advertisements offering rewards for the capture of runaway slaves that punctuate the book are taken from the digital collections of the University of North Carolina. There is much that is shocking in this gripping and important novel, but there are times when it feels as though these deadpan notices, plucked from reality, are the most shocking of all.
In his dynamic new novel, Colson Whitehead takes the Underground Railroad — the loosely interlocking network of black and white activists who helped slaves escape to freedom in the decades before the Civil War — and turns it from a metaphor into an actual train that ferries fugitives northward.
The result is a potent, almost hallucinatory novel that leaves the reader with a devastating understanding of the terrible human costs of slavery. It possesses the chilling, matter-of-fact power of the slave narratives collected by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s, with echoes of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables” and Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” and with brush strokes borrowed from Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka and Jonathan Swift... Mr. Whitehead communicates the horrors of slavery and its toxic legacy rumbling on down the years. At the same time, he memorializes the yearning for freedom that spurs one generation after another to persevere in the search for justice — despite threats and intimidation, despite reversals and efforts to turn back the clock. He has told a story essential to our understanding of the American past and the American present.