Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

30555488Cora is a teenaged slave in 19th century America. The book is the story of her prolonged, painful and seemingly impossible flight to freedom. The book maintains a pretty bleak mood not only because of the various graphic horrors endured by black bodies, but also because of the relentless shadow of the yoke present at all stages of Cora’s journey, hammering in the notion that slavery is inescapable. Escape seems straightforward at first glance – just flee the plantation where you’re enslaved. But once you’re out, you’re not free. Freedom isn’t the natural result of distance and shedding your manacles. How could you escape, where would you go if everything in the world – laws, traditions, ideas of wrong and right – defines you as property? There is nowhere to exist as a human when you’re only one in your own internal conviction, and the whole world is constructed exclusively for other people. The claustrophobic feeling mounting from the moment Cora flees reaches a crescendo in the North Carolina chapter, by far the most gruesome and macabre of the book. Wherever she goes, with the help of friends and allies or dragged by enemies and mercenaries, whatever sanctuary she finds, whatever impossible gifts of freedom and humanity fall into her lap, her status as property and the logic of the world that only has place for her in shackles, catch up with her eventually. On the ground, in the water or underground, she’s in a perpetual, infinite prison.

I think it’s significant that Whitehead literalized the Railroad Underground. Cora and all her companions at various stages of her struggle to set herself free must dig their way to another world, advancing through constant darkness („the true face of America“ – still undefined) until they’ve fought their way to the as yet non-existing light. There is nowhere to hide – if you want to live as a free human, you have to carve a space that allows it. IMO Cora’s final journey in the underground, from the abandoned station through the uncharted tunnel, that she completes using her own physical strength, her body, epitomizes this struggle that lays ahead – crawling and fighting through darkness not to reach, but to make a place of light, peace and existing as a human being.

I admit it was impossible for me at times to put myself in Cora’s shoes. Slavery – not just being a slave, but existing as a black person in a slave-holding world – is a marginal, unnatural, impossible to merely *imagine* state of being.

The book is fast-paced, exciting and deals with its tremendously horrible and tremendously enormous topic head-on – unflinchingly. But I found something lacking in the style maybe that left it feeling incomplete for me. Perhaps it was too dispassionate, distant for my taste or for what I perceive to be fitting for this story. A lot of things happen off-page and are then briefly summarised, making for a sort of disjointed narrative. A lot of the characters’ speech is second-hand, too, distancing the reader from the action and the characters’ personalities and emotions. I think I just needed to feel more „into it“ a lot of the time.


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