Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: American (page 1 of 10)

A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara

Normally, when you set about tackling an 800+ page epic study of humanity, trauma, and relationships, you’re talking about one of the classics, a book written back in the day before publishers cared about “readability”. Not so with A Little Life: I have no idea how this book made it through the vetting process, but here we are. This 2015 novel by Hanya Yanagihara became a best-seller, despite its length and… shall we say, challenging content.

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A Little Life begins with four graduates who have moved to New York. There’s Willem (the kind, handsome one), JB (the quick-witted, artistic one), Malcom (the frustrated, upwardly-mobile one), and Jude (the brilliant, enigmatic one). They all exist on a wide spectrum of identities (racial, sexual, familial, and otherwise), a pleasingly diverse crew with deep and abiding love for one another, even as life scatters them across different courses. One of the really interesting aspects of this book – which you might not realise until much later – is that it’s not anchored in any particular time period. It’s just vaguely contemporary, with no reference to September 11 or any other cultural landmarks that would anchor it in our minds, giving it a timeless quality right from the outset.

For the first fifty or so pages (a drop in the bucket of this epic), they all go to parties, move apartments, hook up, squabble, gossip, all as you’d expect. There are all the usual schisms that threaten friendships – money, politics, miscommunication – but also a deep respect that seems capable of withstanding it all. The story focuses largely on JB, Malcolm, and Willem; Jude’s story is only partly revealed, as background. He exists on the periphery, of the friendship and the narrative. Then, so gradually you might not notice at first, the story of A Little Life morphs into something different, something more than your bog-standard New York bildungsroman.





The friendship ensemble slowly recedes, leaving Jude in the spotlight. Yanagihara drip-feeds his back story to the reader – how he was found abandoned as an infant, near a garbage can, adopted by monks who mistreat him in horrifying ways, only to jump from the frying pan into the fire, and so forth. The story of Jude’s present is chronological, and his past is revealed through seamlessly chronological flashbacks too, making for smooth parallel narratives.

I’ll stop beating around the bush, because if you’ve not read A Little Life and you’re reading this review to work out whether or not to pick it up, you need to know: Jude was sexually abused, repeatedly, in all manner of ways, from a very young age. A Little Life is the story of how this trauma reverberates throughout his life. There’s graphic detail – a lot of it – and very little, if any, justice or redemption.

A Little Life is an UNDERTAKING. It’s not slow moving, by any means, but it is LONG. You need to be ready to really immerse yourself in the lives and relationships of these characters, including Jude’s (though he has it the worst, the others’ aren’t a picnic, either). Yanagihara seems determined to make the reader work for it. She reveals things by surprise, mentions facets of the back-story in passing that cast all-new light on everything that has come before – that’s why A Little Life is NOT skimmable, despite its imposing length. If you let your eyes skip down half a page, you’re liable to miss something crucial and you’ll be forced to circle back, re-live it all over again (the way that Jude has to).

It took me an embarrassingly long time to work out why A Little Life felt so much more overwhelming and devastating than other books I’ve read (and I’ve read some real downers). It’s the damn MAGNITUDE of the thing. It’s both incredibly long and incredibly intimate, which means its punches land much harder. The content isn’t necessarily more traumatic or triggering than you’d find in other books, but there’s SO MUCH of it, and it requires such a HUGE investment on the part of the reader…





Reading A Little Life actually forced me to confront a really uncomfortable question: at what point does literature become tragedy porn? The Sisyphean nature of Jude’s traumas – he comes so close to contentment, time and again, only for the boulder to roll back down the hill and absolutely crush him – gave me pause. Every time he reaches out, makes any headway at all in reckoning with his past, it manifests in another cycle of abuse. Yanagihara renders it in such a way that it is never titillating or sensationalist; this isn’t schlocky horror or crime fiction, and yet… the sheer magnitude of the protagonist’s suffering is enough to make bile rise in the back of your throat. The only thing that makes it bearable is the intervening chapters where she portrays Jude’s life as a successful corporate lawyer, with fulfilling friendships and a found family worth their weight in gold.

You need to know there are no happy endings here. In an article for New York Magazine, Yanagihara said that she wanted to “create a protagonist who never got better”. His relationships with his friends and his adoptive father evolve, but they never “heal” him. Anyone who recommends this book to you without a major trigger warning is a psychopath and a bum, and you should cut them out of your life ASAP. Any time anyone brings up the “debate” about whether and why trigger warnings should be used, A Little Life is the book that proves the affirmative.

One more important thing to note (just a sec, let me drag out my soap box): I’m once again calling your attention to the fact that if the central characters of this novel had been women, rather than men, A Little Life would have been relegated to the category of “women’s fiction” and probably published with a flower on the front cover or some shit (if it were published at all). As it stands, the relationships between these men, and their emotional lives over the course of decades, are the soul of this story. It is, thus, lauded as epic literary fiction. I’m just saying.

Let’s not end on a bum note. Yay for Yanagihara, who shot to international literary stardom with this novel. It was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 2015, and later ranked in The Guardian’s list of the 100 best books of the 21st century. I’m not sure what she’s written lately, but – as good as A Little Life was – I’m not sure I’m all that eager to find out. I need to lick the wounds this novel inflicted for a bit, before I go begging for more.

My favourite Amazon reviews of A Little Life:

  • “Masterpiece, but stay away from it, it will make you cry like the time your first dog died, be warned.” – Sharon
  • “great book if you want to torture yourself. i loved every second.” – Victoria A.
  • “Had to seek out and read every single one-star review as an antidote to the damage caused by this book. No, not complaining about the darkness and pain, but how painfully bad and ill-conceived it is. Never knew a book could make you annoyed to the extent of losing sleep. The one-star reviews restored for me a sense of normalcy, humanity, reason, and general good taste.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I cringe every time this book pops up in my book searches. I haven’t read this book nor do I know anything about it except that the cover is hideous and makes me want to punch my Kindle each time I have to look at it.” – Kindle Customer

Vox – Christina Dalcher

The last four years brought us something I think we can only just now begin to appreciate: a resurgence in The Handmaid’s Tale-inspired feminist dystopian literature, one of the few things actually made great again. I wonder if someday we’ll look back on this particular time as a literary category or movement all of its own (I’d suggest calling it Trump lit, but I don’t want to give him the satisfaction). Vox was one of the ones that came mid-way through in 2018: not quite early enough to be prescient, but not quite late enough to be retrospective, and with a weight of expectation on its shoulders.

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Note that the man himself is never actually named in Vox: he is simply alluded to, the president elected after a black man’s historic term in office, plunging the United States back into a totalitarian regime with the backing of the country’s Bible Belt. The new government forces women out of the workforce, freezes their bank accounts, takes away their passports – it all sounds familiar, right? What makes Vox different is one additional catch: women and girls are restricted to speaking just 100 words a day, monitored by “bracelets” capable of delivering sharp electric shocks to those who exceed the limit.

If you’re like me, your mind has probably jumped to all of the alternative methods of communication that women could use to resist. Dalcher is one step ahead of you. Pens and paper are forbidden, along with books and mail and all other iterations of the same. Anyone caught using sign language is hauled off and subjected to unspecified but undoubtedly horrible punishments. Even a nod is enough to make a woman feel self-conscious. This is all part of the plan, the Pure Movement, to throw America back to a bygone era (that, really, didn’t exist in the first place) of men at work and on top, women at home and silent.

The narrator, Jean, sums it up on page 1: “I’ve become a woman of few words”. Her husband, Patrick, is a high-ranking White House official. They have four children, three sons and a daughter. Their eldest son, Steven, has been lured into the Pure Movement via a religion class at his school. The ascendancy of the Pure Movement, and the family’s descent into fear and mutual distrust, are revealed through Jean’s recollections as her own story unfolds in the present.





Jean has been forced to give up her career as a neuro-linguistics researcher, studying aphasia (loss of language), under the new regime. She devotes a lot of time to blaming herself for not taking a more active role when the first warning signs of impending doom emerged. She, and most others, thought that the “hysterical” feminists were being “over the top” when they warned of what was to come.

Dalcher does a good job – for a debut novelist – of depicting Jean’s complicated relationships with her children. The middle two (twin boys) get kind of lost in the shuffle, but she resents Steven for bringing the prying eyes of the Pure Movement into their home, and fears for the future of her youngest, a daughter. There’s one particularly terrifying moment when Jean wakes in the night to hear her daughter shouting words in her sleep. She tries desperately to reach the girl before she hits her limit (at which point, she’ll be shocked), but when she does Jean has no words of her own left to comfort the girl. It’s heartbreaking, and probably the one scene from Vox that truly stuck with me. I also liked that Jean’s character was unabashedly angry (who wouldn’t be?), remorseful (that she didn’t do more before it was too late), and an imperfect wife (mostly indifferent to her weak-willed but otherwise-loving husband, and carrying on an illicit affair with a co-worker).

The rest of it, I’m afraid, was a bit of a let down. The dystopian world imagined in Vox is okay, but quite derivative (it’s The Handmaid’s Tale with a couple of technological gizmos). That world has already been created, written to (many times), surely we can come up with some other way to comment on and critique society? Jean’s role is also just a bit too convenient to swallow. She just-so-happens to be married to a White House official, and just-so-happens to be a leading expert on neuro-linguistics in a world where women aren’t allowed to use language. I mean, come on! Really?





About two-thirds of the way through, Vox goes from feminist dystopia to hackneyed crime thriller. The “big twist” of the government’s “secret plan” was obvious a hundred miles away; I actually got a bit impatient waiting for Jean to figure it out for herself. One-dimensional “bad guys” hold Jean and her research hostage (one of them, I shit you not, actually says “don’t do anything stupid, Jean” at one point). This whole dystopian future was imagined and put down on the page just so that there can be a gun-fight at the OK Corral and a couple of blokes can swoop in to save the day. Ugh!

Just to cap it off, there’s a melt-in-your-mouth happily ever after (yes, I’m going to spoil it, not sorry even a little bit): the loser husband dies in a sudden fit of heroics, and Jean falls into the arms of her lover (to whom she is, conveniently, pregnant). Every “bad guy” is knocked off, and a whole new administration sweeps in overnight and puts right everything that went wrong. As we have all seen by now: it don’t work like that! Double ugh!

One final overarching concern: I really felt a bit icky about the way Dalcher “borrowed” (i.e., appropriated) longstanding symbols of oppression – internment camps, electrical torture, chemical warfare – to build up stakes for a bog-standard thriller. She didn’t even mention trans rights or the “problem” that non-binary people would undoubtedly pose for the Vox regime – a glaring and unforgivable oversight, in my view, one I can’t believe made it all the way to publication. Dalcher clearly had her blinkers on writing this one, and working in two (2) lesbians and one (1) black woman to remind the white narrator about her privilege wasn’t enough to overcome the fundamental flaws in her approach.

As a blurb, Vox is great: I’d love to understand what might happen in a world where women are literally silenced! But it’s a premise in search of a plot that could do it justice. Dalcher would have done better to let this one marinate for longer, maybe come at it with a broader view and a bit more distance from the realities of the past few years. All said and done, if you’re looking for a fresh feminist dystopia, I’m afraid this ain’t it; it might scratch your itch for a crime thriller though, if that’s what you’re after, and there’s a couple of moments with the kids that will pull on your heartstrings.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Vox:

  • “This book was recommended to me by someone, I wish I knew who, because it was not a pleasant read. It was actually rather horrifying.” – Gwen B
  • “It’s not even bad enough to be good.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Am not a big fan of mystery or suspense and the abuse of all females disturbed me tremendously.
    There wasn’t an issue of the book being written badly or anything like that. Just hated the story.” – Straightshoota


The Color Purple – Alice Walker

How’s this for an opening line: “You better not never tell nobody but God.” Chills, right? It’s a powerful opener for a powerful book, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. It sets the stage for a story told largely through letters to God, from a black woman named Celie. When she starts writing these letters, she is just fourteen years old, and yet she has already seen and experienced a lifetime’s worth of hardship.

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(To fortify you for what’s to come, here’s a fun fact about my copy of The Color Purple: it was once awarded to Ella S at her Year 7 Speech Night, for Excellence in Mathematics of all things, according to the plate stuck in the front. Wherever she is, hope she’s still kicking the quadratic equation’s arse!)

Celie’s story begins, as I said, with her at fourteen years old, living in poverty and lacking any real education. Her story begins in the American South (Georgia, it would seem) in the early half of the 20th century. As if all of that weren’t enough – trigger warning! so many trigger warnings! – she has also been beaten and raped (repeatedly) by her father, Alphonso. She became pregnant, twice, and as far as she knows Alphonso has killed their children. The abuse at the hands of her father, and just about every other man in her life, has left her with very little self-worth or belief, aside from that which she finds in her letters to God. The dialect in which she writes takes a little getting used to at first, but no more so than books like Huck Finn.

The bright spot in Celie’s life is her younger sister, Nettie – a beautiful, clever, and brave girl whom Celie will protect from their father at all costs. An older man (identified only as Mister) comes sniffing around, looking for a bride. Alphonso refuses to let him take Nettie, and Mister begrudgingly accepts Celie instead (he needs someone, desperately, to care for his children and keep his house, ugh). Unfortunately, it’s out of the frying pan and into the fire for Celie, because as Mister’s wife she experiences only more abuse and degradation.





Not long after, Nettie runs away from home. She and Celie know she could never be safe at Mister’s house (he does, after all, still have his rapey eye on her), so Celie recommends she seek out a wealthy stranger she once met in passing to help. Unbelievably, this works, and Nettie joins their household and their missionary trip to Africa. Nettie promises to write, but when Celie never receives any letters, she concludes that her sister must be dead.

About a third of the way through The Color Purple, we’re introduced to the third central character: Shug Avery, a jazz singer and long-time mistress of Mister (whom she calls Albert, weird). When she falls ill, Mister takes her in to be cared for (i.e., by his wife, Celie) until she’s well enough to go back to work. Little does he know, he’s tying his own noose: Celie and Shug fall in love.

Shug is basically everything Celie wishes herself to be: brave, free, talented, beautiful, and worldly (in every sense). Their relationship strengthens and deepens over time, and eventually Celie elects to move away from Shug, abandoning her arsehole husband and his rotten kids. Through Shug, she also learns that her sister Nettie is not dead after all: Mister has been hiding her letters, she is alive and well in Africa, and Celie clings to hope that one day they will be reunited. And I suppose that’s about as far as I can get into describing the plot without getting too spoiler-y…





It actually took me a while to work out when exactly the events of The Color Purple were taking place. Given that the majority of the action occurs in isolated rural areas, and things have been so shitty for women of colour for so long, it could’ve been just about any time since the American Civil War. Towards the end, however, characters started alluding to a(nother) world war, which puts the timeline between 1910 and 1940. I actually liked the timeless quality, with Walker’s focus on the immediate and the minutia of character. It made the story more universal, more ingratiating to readers in the present.

You’d be forgiven for assuming that, with all the God talk and letters that are basically prayers, that this is a religious novel. Walker says in her preface that “this is the book in which I was able to express a new spiritual awareness, a rebirth into strong feelings of Oneness I realised I had experienced and taken for granted as a child,”. That said, The Color Purple isn’t evangelical or preachy at all. I found it totally accessible and relatable, even as a lifelong atheist. Celie explicitly starts to doubt the “official” version of God (as organised Christian religion would have us believe) about halfway through the novel, and comes to the remarkably progressive conclusion that “god” is in everything. Her last letter is addressed: “Dear God. Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear Everything. Dear God.”

The core message I took away from The Color Purple was not, despite the impression I might have given, “doesn’t life suck for people of colour”. Instead, it was to marvel at the strength and power of relationships between women. It is through her relationship with Shug, and her persistent belief in the strength of her bond with Nettie, that Celie is able to overcome all that oppresses her. The women in her life are a salve to the wounds inflicted by men and their violence, as Celie herself is a salve to the wounds inflicted on the women she loves. So, despite the rather traumatic and depressing content, the “feel” of The Color Purple is more hopeful and uplifting than you might expect.





The Color Purple was first published in 1982, and went on to win both the National Book Award For Fiction and the Pulitzer Prize For Fiction in 1983 (making Walker the first black woman to win the latter). It has retained its cultural currency in the intervening decades – so much so that it continues to be banned and challenged in schools and libraries, which seems to be a rite of passage for any meaningful work of literature. Common reasons for scrapping it from reading lists include the explicit sexual content, language, violence, and lesbianism (the horror! *eye roll*). It appeared on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2000-2009.

There has been a very successful movie adaptation (with Oprah!), and a musical adaptation too, but I actually don’t feel all that inclined to seek either of them out. I feel like the power of the story comes from Celie’s telling of it, in words on paper, and I’m not sure it could translate onto screen or stage. All told, The Color Purple is a brilliant and very moving work of art, one well worth a read (and probably at least one or two re-reads, come to that).

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Color Purple:

  • “Life is uncertain and people are generally bad and good. When you can, do the things that make you happy.” – Kelly
  • “The book was a lot like the movie but different.” – N. Keith
  • “It was very disheartening for to see this book be ruined so with the perversion of lesbianism. Otherwise, it would have been a very good book. It was informative and interesting, but very disgusting because of the sexual perversion of lesbianism.” – Ecclesia
  • “incredible sorrry” – jessica Utley


Becoming – Michelle Obama

I worry that reviewing Daisy Jones And The Six has put me on a dangerous path. All of a sudden, I find myself tempted to pick up all of the hugely hyped books of the past few years, the ones I thought I’d never bother reading, just to see if they live up. Here’s exhibit B: Becoming. (Does that mean I’ll end up reading A Promised Land, too? We’ll see…)

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I think we can all agree that the market for White House memoirs is well and truly saturated. Even before the Trump era, we were drenched in the recollections of the second undersecretary to the whoever of no-one-cares. It makes me wonder whether it’s even possible to have a single unguarded conversation with anyone who might go within a hundred feet of the U.S. federal government, seeing as they all seem to have notebooks and voice recorders in their pockets…

But there seems to be something special about Becoming, Michelle Obama’s account of her life up to and including her time as the first black First Lady of the United States. It sold 725,000 copies on the first day of release, and 1.4 million in its first week. It set the record for the best-selling book published in the United States in 2018, just fifteen days after it hit the shelves. What’s most remarkable is that its popularity has persisted, past the initial curiosity spike and gossip-hounding; as of November 2020, there are at least 14 million copies in worldwide circulation.

The thing is, there’s nothing about the way the book is written – with its straightforward chronological format, and no-nonsense accessible tone – that seems remarkable at all. Content-wise, it didn’t seem particularly earth-shattering, either. From the preface alone, I got the impression that, while Obama was going to be frank about the ups and downs, she’s an earnestly optimistic person at heart and Becoming was hardly going to be a salacious tell-all.





The first section, Becoming Me, covers Obama’s life growing up on the South Side of Chicago, with loving parents and a stalwart brother in an apartment above her aunt and uncle’s. Thanks to her mother’s advocacy, her own hard work, and a couple of lucky breaks, she received a more-than-decent education that saw her accepted into Princeton University (and, later, Harvard Law School). Obama recounts a fairly charmed-life version of her childhood and adolescence. Her story is not without sadness or difficulty, but it all just seems so wholesome. There was, as she tells it, no more angst than a gnawing sense of self-doubt, and no more misbehaviour than a (very) brief mention of smoking pot and necking with a boy in the backseat of his car. Surely, she’s left the good stuff out.

Becoming Us – as you might guess – covers her courtship and marriage to Barack, whom she met as a young lawyer at a prestigious law firm. Obama is a little more open in this section, about her desire to leave the corporate world, her misgivings about her new husband’s political career, and – most admirably – her miscarriage and troubles conceiving.

That said, sometimes the writing gets a bit repetitive, especially through the first half (we get it, your Aunt Robbie is a hard-arse). There are times where it also feels a little indulgent; some anecdotes had me wondering “Why are you telling me this? What’s it going to add to the story?”. I had to remind myself that Obama is a public figure, not a writer – that’s probably why Becoming is so long, and willfully ignores some of the more creative aspects of memoir writing.





The feminist in me is pushing me to pretend that these early developmental sections – how Obama became Obama – are the most interesting, that Obama’s own career in law and then community advocacy are the best parts of Becoming. They aren’t a snooze fest – it’s interesting and inspiring to see how a young woman persevered to overcome everything that was, on paper, against her – but let’s be real. The reason we read Becoming is for the third and final section, Becoming More – her account of her time as First Lady.

Throughout the election campaign and early days after the vote, it’s clear that Obama had an agenda: to be the change she wanted to see in U.S. government. Even though she, herself, wasn’t in a position to be drafting policy or implementing legislation, she still had a certain sway – especially with the public – and she used it tactically. Her Let’s Move campaign was seeded with her concerns about her own daughters’ nutrition, and by carefully and strategically addressing those concerns and bringing them to a bigger platform, she sowed and reaped tangible changes for childhood nutrition across the U.S.

She also offers some really powerful and touching insights about her own mis-steps and mistakes while her husband was in office: from her naivete to outright ignorance of what her role should be and what it required of her. She’s not quiet about her frustrations with the media and public attacks on her and her family, but she doesn’t seem overly bitter about them, either. Throughout Becoming, her faith seems to lie in her in-person interactions with the public. “When voters got to see me as a person, they understood that the caricatures were untrue,” she says, on page 270. “I’ve learned that it is harder to hate up close.”





I got the distinct impression, from the way Becoming is written and presented, that the Obamas aren’t done with politics and public life. She insists, in the Epilogue, that she herself has no aspiration or interest in pursuing a career in politics, but given the sanitary and affirming tone of the book, I don’t quite believe it.

Publishing her memoir has certainly given Obama a huge platform, perhaps even bigger than the one she held while her husband was in office. Becoming was an Oprah’s Book Club pick – with all the international reach and influence that that entails – and the audiobook even won a Grammy (for Best Spoken Word Album, 2020). If she were to pursue some new line of public life, I’ve no doubt they’d pave the road in gold for her. In the meantime, Becoming wasn’t perfect, but it was a pleasure to read, and I’ve gained some insight into recent U.S. political history that surely won’t go astray.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Becoming:

  • “The title should’ve been more like “Becoming Michelle Obummer”!” – sergio chavez
  • “I wouldn’t wipe my dogs butt with this book.” – virginia g foretich
  • “Great book… I bought two one for my auntie birthday and one for myself, get comfortable with a little greatness in your life and she looks great on my coffee table!” – Sharonda Rudolph-Doe

The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

When most kids first hear about the Underground Railroad, they picture just that: train tracks that ran underground, and (in this context) ferried slaves to safety during a truly abhorrent period of American history. Colson Whitehead is the first writer – as far as I know – to take that childish notion and turn it into literary fiction. The Underground Railroad is a semi-speculative alternative history of the antebellum South, one that Barack Obama called “terrific” and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2017.

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Before we go any further, I need to make something clear: I’m an Australian girl with no more than the general gist of American history. I have absolutely no authority when it comes to accounts of the slave trade in the States, and no more knowledge than what I’ve gleaned here and there (we didn’t even cover it in school, really). All I’ve done is read this book, and I’m going to tell you what I think of it – take that with as many grains of salt as you deem necessary.

So, back in 2000, baby Whitehead has this idea to write a book about a literal underground railroad… but he chickens out. He doesn’t think he’s got the writing chops to pull it off. Still, the idea festers away in the darkest recesses of his brain, for over a decade. Finally, with five other novels to his name, he sets about writing it, The Underground Railroad.

This process entailed the kind of research that makes you exhausted just to think about: difficult and time consuming. Whitehead spent longer than you or I care to imagine working his way through the oral history archives (over two thousand personal accounts of slavery collected by the Federal Writers’ Project back in the ’30s), and traditional slave testimonies. To his credit, Whitehead doesn’t drown the reader in detail; he employs the ol’ iceberg theory of writing (nine-tenths below the surface) in The Underground Railroad to great effect. The story has the ring of authenticity, without straying into showing-off territory.





The central character, Cora, is born into slavery on a plantation in Georgia. When she is alarmingly young, her mother – Mabel – escapes, without her, leaving her to fend for herself. Obviously, that engenders some very complicated feelings in Cora, pride that her mother was able to extricate herself on the one hand (she was never caught, not even by the notorious slave-catcher Ridgeway), but resentment at being abandoned on the other. Fair enough, wouldn’t you say?

Cora doesn’t harbour any particular aspirations to escape herself although, as she says: “Every slave thinks about it. In the morning and in the afternoon and in the night. Dreaming of it. Every dream a dream of escape even when it didn’t look like it.” Life on the plantation is so horrific that it’s impossible not to dream of escape, but at the same time the odds seem insurmountable (Mabel is the only slave who’s ever pulled it off).

Enter Caesar: a fellow slave, a young man, who approaches Cora and asks her to accompany him on his escape attempt. He seems to view her as some kind of lucky charm, given her mother’s success. Cora rebuffs him at first, but the idea takes root, and grows in her until it seems inevitable. This is how she finds herself swept into the clandestine operation of the underground railroad. In Whitehead’s telling, it’s no metaphor: it has tracks, and stations, and conductors, and timetables. Escaping by the narrowest of margins, Cora and Ceasar board a train and find themselves…





… in South Carolina. And North Carolina. And Tennessee, and Indiana, and further beyond. Her journey is harrowing (to say the least) and each stop on the railroad presents a different manifestation of the reality (and the legacy) of slavery in America. In between each of these stations, Whitehead gives the reader a digression, a back-story of people Cora encounters. At first, they might appear only tangential to the story, but they all piece together to give a more complete picture of what Cora – and at least sixty million others – had to face.

From page one, The Underground Railroad depicts the gruesome realities of the slave trade and enslaved lives. Every chapter reveals some new horror. So much of what happens to Cora is gut-churningly awful, and yet… it’s compelling, and propulsive. The Underground Railroad is not a light or easy read, but it’s unputdownable all the same. That’s a very weird combination, and not one I’ve encountered often in my literary sojourns. I read a review on The Guardian that described it as “beautifully written and painful to read”, which pretty much sums it up.

When Whitehead was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for this book, the committee cited the “smart melding of realism and allegory that combines the violence of slavery and the drama of escape that speaks to contemporary America”. They weren’t the only ones who were impressed; The Underground Railroad also won the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the 2017 Andrew Carneige Medal for Excellence. Sometimes, books that rack up awards are overlooked or discounted by the wider public, written off as too lofty or literary to be decipherable by regular humans, but The Underground Railroad hit all the best-seller lists.

Not to be basic about it, but I’m a fan. A huge fan. It feels twisted to have so thoroughly enjoyed and relished a book about such a terrible subject, but I’ll chalk that up to Whitehead’s talent rather than any defect in my own character. I predict The Underground Railroad will go on to join the canon of classic works about American slavery, alongside Beloved and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Underground Railroad:

  • “I don’t think this book gives an factual account of what the Underground Railroad was. I also question whether or not a person could have gone through what Cora did and survived!?!” – Betty
  • “The fake railroad just didn’t work for me.” – AMO1234
  • “This is perfect background for these times of racial conflict. The south was not all mansions and mint juleps.” – Kindle Customer
  • “Poorly written and how do I say, trite. Fails as science fiction, and fails at historical fiction. An actual subterranean interstate railway system that is un-noticed by authorities. Who built it? How did they do it un-noticed? No nuance. A poor imitation of Forest Gump, focused on senseless torture and atrocities. The Pulitzer committee should be ashamed. To summarize, I did not like it.” – M. Konikoff
  • “Since when do cabbages grow on vines.
    My worry is that some people may think this is a nonfiction book.” – Amazon Customer

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