The Underground Railroad

by Colson Whitehead

Is one permitted to enjoy a book on slavery?  I can honestly say that I did enjoy reading this; the character of Cora is so compelling and her adventures so fascinating.  She is lively and determined, and meets her often appalling fate at every turn of the way with courage and spirit.  The story, too – though unbelievable in the many successful escapes that Cora achieves – is fast-moving, and it is easy to be swept along, as Cora herself is by her adventures.

I read this book immediately after Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger, and I did wonder whether two books about slavery was a bit of overkill.  But the two books are very different.  Unsworth’s book is set a century before Whitehead’s, and deals with the Atlantic slave trade rather than life on the plantation (and in other environments)within North America.  The language, too, is different.  In Sacred Hunger much use is made of an English style reminiscent of 18th century language – especially in the speech.  Annoyingly (to me at least) the second part of this novel makes heavy use of Pidgin.  The Underground Railroad uses good, eminently readable modern English.  Even if Pidgin was spoken on the plantation, it is not used in dialogue and the reader is only vaguely aware that the slaves have received less (= no) education than the white people.

Whitehead’s book reminded me more than anything of Stephen King’s novel The Stand, which I read about a year ago. Like this book, that one is essentially a road trip, peppered with adventures, clear-cut goodies and baddies and the improbable survival of the protagonist through all the brushes with death they encounter along the way.

I have also read Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl written by Herself, on which this novel draws.  That book too was barely believable, and yet one has to assume that it is based in fact (and certainly this is how it is put across).  The brutality is just so extreme.  In The Underground Railroad, Cora is raised on and later escapes from a particularly brutal plantation in Georgia.  She experiences a settled life in a ‘model’ community in South Carolina, where black and white populations live alongside each other, apparently tolerant although each has its own separate realm.  But even here, the whites have their own agenda, the slavecatchers are still after her, and Cora migrates again.  This time she arrives in North Carolina, where a recently imposed extreme regime of racial persecution and murder leaves both Cora and her hosts facing death if she is discovered, hiding in a cramped attic space.  Captured (but not murdered), transported through a bleak Tennessee landscape devastated by wildfire and yellow fever, Cora escapes again, rescued by members of the underground railroad (other members of which have assisted her along the way).  She is taken to the idyllic Valentine farm in Indiana, managed and worked by black people in a surrounding area of white settlers.  The idyll cannot last; a white posse attacks the Valentine residents and Cora is recaptured by her nemesis, the evil slavecatcher Ridgeway.

Cora’s successive adventures and narrow escapes are reminiscent also of the best adventure novels – echoes of The Count of Monte Cristo.  Unlike the Count, she does not reinvent herself but knows herself well enough to fit into each new environment with its many constraints.

Aside from the successive steps in the narrative – one can hardly call them twists and turns, for though they are sometimes unexpected, the help the sequential story along – there is one great twist underlying the whole story.  Whitehead has imagined what the metaphor of an underground railroad would look like if taken literally.  He has the escapees descending through cellar trapdoors onto sometimes dank, sometimes opulent platforms and boarding a variety of real trains that travel through tunnels to the next destination.

At first, I found this translating of the railroad metaphor into reality an unnecessary complication in the story; indeed it rather tended to destroy, for me, the believability of the rest of the novel.  But on reflection I realised that, as a plot device, it enables the story as imagined by the author.  He is able to depict the various environments Cora finds herself in, without taking up narrative space depicting how she got there.  Each state she passes through has its own unique take on the question of race and how (or whether) the black and white populations should coexist.  That one escaped slave should experience all this is unbelievable – but the ‘real’ underground railroad allows us to suspend disbelief and imagine “what if…?”.

I did enjoy this book, and feel encouraged to explore the background and work out just how much of Cora’s experience is based on reality.  Also to read more about the underground railroad as really implemented.

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Sacred Hunger

by Barry Unsworth

I wonder why I had never heard of this book until recently, although it shared the 1992 Booker prize with The English Patient, which I read at the time?

Many critics and reviewers have commented on the way the second ‘book’ is slower than the first.  I certainly felt this, and I also found the copious use of pidgin rather annoying at times.  The author seems to be playing with the language, making his characters try to express complex ideas and emotions in pidgin.  Maybe this works – but it is not essential to the story.  Neither is the description of the customs and practices that the ‘paradise’ community has established.

Much more interesting, for me, was the story of the slave traders’ progress along the Guinea coast of Africa, their various transactions with different dealers at different times resulting in a community of former slaves from widely varying African geographic and cultural backgrounds.  So too were the individually-told stories of the men who are more or less ‘pressed’ to join the ship’s crew.  Matthew Paris is well developed as a character, and his ‘back story’ serves to illuminate not only his reason for joining as ship’s doctor, but also his intellectual and emotional responses to the behaviour of the captain and crew.  Not all the characters are as well-rounded.  Thurso (the captain) seems to be a caricature of a crazed bully.  My mental image of him is of the deranged sea captain in the second season of the BBC’s Blackadder series, and this image refuses to budge.  The painter and idealist Delblanc who joins the ship in Africa and is the architect of the Florida community is hazy, and almost superfluous. Would the community have been so very different if he had not been around to help shape it intellectually?

Violence, misery, deception – all these things are to be expected in a story that deals with the minutiae of the slave trade as experienced by merchants, seamen and slaves.  The detailed physical description of the south Florida environment is captivating, and so too are the characters who retain some hope and even humour, as well as humanity, through all their ordeals.  This is not a bleak tale, though the lives of its characters are far from easy or enviable.


Three others of Unsworth’s books have been short- or long-listed for the Booker at various times.  And yet I have never heard of the author or his work.  His writing is superb: clean, clear, well-rounded prose.  Maybe I will try another of his books one day.

Good as Dead

by Mark Billingham

What an opening chapter!  A young woman goes into a newsagent’s on her way to work, as she does every morning.  Three young men swagger in and start hassling the shopkeeper, while the young woman – who, we learn, is a police officer – watches nervously alongside another customer.  The shopkeeper chases the youths from the shop … and then … turns a gun on his two customers.

That’s as far as I have got, having only started to read this book this morning.  I’ll come back to this review.

__________

The book was just as good as its opening chapter promised. Although I had cottoned onto who the arch-villain was as soon as DI Thorne did, the way the plot would work itself out was still hard to second-guess.

Under-age sex rings involving people in high positions; more than one police officer taking huge risks; murders got up to look like suicides … and all through the book, the tension and ticking clock of the hostage drama.

Definitely an author worth returning to.

East West Street

by Philippe Sands

I don’t recall who recommended this book. It must have been some months ago.  I made a note of it, and ordered it from the library.  When it finally arrived, three weeks ago, I had forgotten why I’d ordered it!  I read this quite quickly, as it had to go back to the library.

Sands, himself a lawyer, has researched the lives of four men: his grandfather, Leon Buchholz; a professor of international law, Hersch Lauterpacht, who put the term “crimes against humanity” as an indictment used at the Nuremberg trials; Raphael Lemkin, another lawyer, who introduced the crime of genocide to the international consciousness; and Hans Frank, the “butcher of Poland”.  Each of these men has a connection with the city of Lviv, now in the Ukraine and variously known as Lemberg, Lvov, Lwów under successive regimes.

The author is clearly interested in, and explains very well, the legal arguments around the two different crimes and the distinctions between them.  The legal issues are very accessible to a non-legal reader.  Sands gives a vivid picture of the Nuremberg trials but does not dwell on this aspect of the story.  We also get a glimpse into life in Eastern Poland / Western Russia in the early years of the twentieth century, when the first three protagonists were variously living, growing up and studying there.

Notable is the fact that it was Jewish lawyers who laid the foundations of human rights law.  Though Frank himself was a lawyer and legal adviser to Hitler, he was appointed head of the government of occupied Poland.  His son, Niklas, becomes a friend of the author and shows nothing but contempt for the actions of his father.

This book moves at a good pace – and I read it quickly, though would be happy to re-read it and understand the stories and their connections better.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.

 


Sands was appearing at the Cheltenham Literature Festival just after I finished reading his book.  I contemplated attending his talk, but then decided that this might diminish my appreciation of the book.