Considering the number of accolades The Underground Railroad has won, this book has a lot to live up to. Alongside the Pulitzer, Whitehead claimed the National Book Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and has now been longlisted for The 2017 Man Booker Prize.
Whitehead brings the metaphoric 'Underground Railroad' into literal being as a larger than life network of underground tunnels and functioning steam train, which allows Cora to escape from slavery. However, that isn't the end of the story. Constantly on the run, Cora travels through the history of slavery and its legacies, including the institutionalised abuses of the state. Cora suffers unimaginable atrocities, which Whitehead captures painfully. However, there is always an overriding sense of Cora's will to keep going, to find her freedom.
We see the abuses Cora suffers as a slave, then what she witnesses as a woman 'owned' by the US Government, in a community being experimented on. She is constantly on the run, using the tunnels of the railroad to jump from state to state, as she runs from her past, hopefully towards a future in which she can be free. We begin to wonder if Cora can ever be happy after what she has suffered, historical fact seems intent on robbing her of the happy endings we expect of novels, but, there is still a sense of hope, through her determination not to give up.
The novel is so compelling, both despite and because of the difficult subject matter. The only negative aspect is that it loses its pace towards the end, but this does little to dampen an otherwise brilliant book. Considering recent politics and current events this is a part of history which needs to be relayed, retold and reimagined, and Whitehead's version hits the nail on the head in terms of updating this narrative and making it feel relevant for today. This novel certainly deserves the success it has reaped, which put it in a very strong position for the Man Booker.
- Image, stack of the Man Booker Prize 2017 longlist, courtesy of the Booker Prize Foundation.