Book Review: The Underground Railroad

American author Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” easily puts all other antebellum novels to shame. Published in 2016, it has since received the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and The National Book Award.

The story is centred around Cora, beginning in a horrific plantation where no slave is immune to all forms of violence. A female character lead gives the entire novel an innovative perspective, encompassing horrors of slavery beyond the overseer’s whip. The writing is crafted in a remarkably balanced way so that she does not become an object of pity, but rather her storyline is granted the agency to create sympathy. Furthermore, Whitehead pens a transgenerational storyline around Cora which serves as a reminder of the genetic nature of the suffering that will surely be passed down.

Whitehead’s real magic lies in his ability to create three-dimensional characters, whether they are oppressor or oppressed. The varied language and tone that the

runaway slave characters use subconsciously, forces the reader to acknowledge their humanity despite the constant dehumanization they face in the novel. What is more, the villains in the story are just as well rounded, forcing us to confront the harsh truth that slavery was a human product, rather than using dismissive writing that paints the characters as black and white.

Constant discomfort with small breaks of little prosperity is characteristic of the entirety of the novel’s setting. Whether it is overground or in the fictitious literal underground, the runaways are constantly being chased and that is a discomfort everyone can empathise with. “I found my back aching when they slept rough and feeling claustrophobic when they were cramped during their escape”, said one fan of the book.

If you’re thinking about reading a new book definitely consider picking up a copy of “The Underground Railroad”. Many of us have probably watched or read stories about the Antebellum South, but this narrative is so original and widens the grey area that you are guaranteed to find yourself thinking about it for days upon completing it.


Yasmin Elsouda, BA International Relations


Post Author: SOAS Spirit

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