Violet wells's Reviews > The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
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bookshelves: booker, pulitzer

It must be hard for a writer to create an uneducated character. It’s not really something you can research. Toni Morrison has set the benchmark, an almost impossibly high benchmark. Of late Marilyn Robinson did a good job with Lila. Whitehead evades this challenge principally by giving his central character Cora little if any inner life. Therefore this is a novel principally of surface realities. It’s a narrative of the eye more than the heart. What this means is I never felt I got to know Cora. She was eluding me as energetically as she was trying to elude all her other pursuers. Maybe that was clever on Whitehead’s part; an ingenious irony. Because Cora never stays with anyone for long she never has a faithful sounding board or foil which enables her to dramatise her inner life. She remains very cinematic, an image rather than a sensibility.

There’s something fundamentally unthinkable about the brutal inhumanity of slavery. It beggars belief that educated human beings could treat other human beings with such perverted humiliating abuse. In that respect it’s an historical event that has parallels with the Holocaust. The Holocaust is often used by writers nowadays as the winning template for a thrilling and moving story. In other words the unspeakable, the inconceivable are reduced to everyday terms of reference we all recognise - essentially the good guys running from the bad guys. There is an element of that here too. We get to feel good about ourselves for cheering on Cora and booing the plantation bosses and slave catchers. The Punch and Judy principle of storytelling. For me the success of Twelve Years a Slave was it never strained to entertain. The Underground Railway does try to entertain and the outcome for me was that it was less moving as a result. It’s well written, well plotted and has some memorable visuals but I can’t say anything about it excited me as a novel with all the plaudits this has received surely should have done.
Somewhere between 3 and 4 stars.
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Reading Progress

October 10, 2016 – Shelved
October 10, 2016 – Shelved as: to-read
August 26, 2017 – Started Reading
September 5, 2017 – Shelved as: booker
September 5, 2017 – Shelved as: pulitzer
September 9, 2017 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-41 of 41 (41 new)

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Stephanie Sharp I just started reading this and have got the impression Hollywood is going to snap this up. I'm in the mood for a book that is more plot driven after a couple of recent challenging reads, and I figured this would fit the bill nicely. I see I'm not wrong. :)


Violet wells Stephanie wrote: "I just started reading this and have got the impression Hollywood is going to snap this up. I'm in the mood for a book that is more plot driven after a couple of recent challenging reads, and I fig..."

It feels as if it was written for the cinema, Stephanie. It's very visual. It's also essentially an adventure story so yep, easy to read and not particularly challenging.


Maria It seems to me that somewhere in the process of creating "an uneducated character" he put some daring thoughts about Irish immigrants and reflections on the nature of slavery ("Like a slave? Born to it, like slave?") in her mouth, which didn't help at all.


message 4: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala The word 'insightful' crops up a lot on goodreads but I've rarely come across a review so truly full of insights. Great analysis, Violet, not only of the book but of the Punch and Judy principle of storytelling in general. Such a good phrase too!


Violet wells Maria wrote: "It seems to me that somewhere in the process of creating "an uneducated character" he put some daring thoughts about Irish immigrants and reflections on the nature of slavery ("Like a slave? Born t..."

I never believed the author knew Cora, Maria. He rarely tells us what we want to know about her. And never succeeded in giving her a distinctive voice. It's true she ended up articulating ideas in a text book fashion which didn't ring true. .


Violet wells Fionnuala wrote: "The word 'insightful' crops up a lot on goodreads but I've rarely come across a review so truly full of insights. Great analysis, Violet, not only of the book but of the Punch and Judy principle of..."

Thanks Fi! This was oddly similar to Exit West - the characters largely silhouettes in a sweeping vision of persecution and exile. I probably just about preferred Hamid's book which didn't have the cinematic aspirations of this one.


message 7: by Margitte (new)

Margitte Really an insightful ad great review, Violet.


Violet wells Margitte wrote: "Really an insightful ad great review, Violet."

Thanks Margitte.


message 9: by Julie (last edited Sep 09, 2017 12:09PM) (new)

Julie Ehlers "What this means is I never felt I got to know Cora. She was eluding me as energetically as she was trying to elude all her other pursuers."

When I read this I immediately thought of this book, which is also an escaped-slave narrative where we barely get to know the main character. I wonder if Whitehead was deliberately paying homage to the classic slave narratives?

Great review. I'll probably read this at some point and now I have a good idea of what to expect.


Violet wells Julie wrote: ""What this means is I never felt I got to know Cora. She was eluding me as energetically as she was trying to elude all her other pursuers."

When I read this I immediately thought of this book, wh..."


It's more than possible, Julie. It'd be the simple solution to the very difficult challenge of entering into the sensibility of a character who's had no education, no experience of civilised society. Problem is, it makes for a character who shuns intimacy with the reader as intrepidly as she does with virtually everyone in the novel.


message 11: by Jenna (new) - added it

Jenna I like your premise about the challenge of creating an uneducated, or perhaps naive, character - a task best left to the masters. I agree Toni Morrison perfected this (The Bluest Eye is my favorite), writing especially in that book in the tradition of Faulkner, whom I'd characterize as another master of this narrative point of view. I also thought about Alice Walker (The Color Purple in particular) and Zora Neale Hurston. Great review!


Violet wells Jenna wrote: "I like your premise about the challenge of creating an uneducated, or perhaps naive, character - a task best left to the masters. I agree Toni Morrison perfected this (The Bluest Eye is my favorite..."

Thanks Jenna. I was going to include Faulkner. I haven't read Walker or Hurston - time to rectify that soon.


Carrie (brightbeautifulthings) "It’s a narrative of the eye more than the heart." This is nicely put. I feel like it's a trademark of Whitehead's to write narrators who more or less blend into their surroundings. I haven't read this yet, but it seems like that's the case in Zone One and John Henry Days as well.


Violet wells Carrie (brightbeautifulthings) wrote: ""It’s a narrative of the eye more than the heart." This is nicely put. I feel like it's a trademark of Whitehead's to write narrators who more or less blend into their surroundings. I haven't read ..."

Do you have a favourite of his novels, Carrie?


Angela M Violet, I was bothered that the author made The Underground Railroad an actual railroad rather than the keeping the symbolic meaning of the railroad as in history was ascribed to the brave men and women who brought slaves to freedom. A lot of people saw it differently. I still think it's an important book. Nice review.


Violet wells Angela M wrote: "Violet, I was bothered that the author made The Underground Railroad an actual railroad rather than the keeping the symbolic meaning of the railroad as in history was ascribed to the brave men and ..."

Thanks Angela. Yep, literalising the railroad didn't really work for me. You wrote a terrific review of this.


message 17: by Jaline (new) - added it

Jaline Terrific review, Violet! In other reviews I have read of a few different flaws that other readers have also noticed. I still feel compelled to read it (eventually) just because it is on the Booker nominee list.


Carrie (brightbeautifulthings) Those are the only two I've read (The Intuitionist is hanging out on my TBR shelf), but I'll always go with Zone One. It's in my top two favorite zombie novels, alongside The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell.


message 19: by Debbie (new) - added it

Debbie Fantastic review, Violet! Hm....not racing to this one; some good critiquing.


Violet wells Jaline wrote: "Terrific review, Violet! In other reviews I have read of a few different flaws that other readers have also noticed. I still feel compelled to read it (eventually) just because it is on the Booker ..."

Thanks Jaline. It's worth reading. I haven't been overly impressed with any of the Booker nominees so far. A few good books but not one I'd call an indisputably great book.


Violet wells Carrie (brightbeautifulthings) wrote: "Those are the only two I've read (The Intuitionist is hanging out on my TBR shelf), but I'll always go with Zone One. It's in my top two favorite zombie novels, alongside The Reapers are the Angels..."

Thanks Carrie. I've never read a zombie novel. Perhaps it's time!


Violet wells Debbie wrote: "Fantastic review, Violet! Hm....not racing to this one; some good critiquing."

Thanks Debbie. Just wait for the movie - I'm sure it'll arrive.


Seemita Darn well summed up, Violet. Cora, indeed, appears a little fleeing kind, albeit not without a few spurts of measured halts.


Cheri Thank you, Violet, for that wonderful review, I really appreciated your insight into this one, as well as all the other reviews I've read. I do feel as though I should read this at some point, but I never really feel drawn to it, either, after hearing the more commonly held complaints about this.


Violet wells Seemita wrote: "Darn well summed up, Violet. Cora, indeed, appears a little fleeing kind, albeit not without a few spurts of measured halts."

Thanks Seemita.


Violet wells Cheri wrote: "Thank you, Violet, for that wonderful review, I really appreciated your insight into this one, as well as all the other reviews I've read. I do feel as though I should read this at some point, but ..."

Considering all the plaudits it's had it was disappointing, Cheri. It's okay but never one of those novels that wraps you in its atmosphere all the time you're reading it.


message 27: by [deleted user] (new)

as. so. lutely phenomenal review, violet. there is so much insight; wonderful.


Violet wells paulie wrote: "as. so. lutely phenomenal review, violet. there is so much insight; wonderful."

Thanks Paulie.


Christy Excellent analysis and insight here - bravo!


message 30: by Violet (last edited Sep 20, 2017 01:10AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Violet wells Christy wrote: "Excellent analysis and insight here - bravo!"

Thanks Christy. This novel deserves a prominent two star review and yours, fabulously argued, fits the bill brilliantly. Bravo to you too!


message 31: by Julie (new)

Julie Great review, Violet. I have to add, though, that your first line made me laugh out loud -- and I only reply to it with tongue firmly in cheek. I would say it's very easy to "create an uneducated character" ... if you follow me around the neighbourhood and take notes. We are presently living in a place where I am "all out at elbows" and the fruit is ripe for the picking. Too funny!

In all serious though, your review confirms my own suspicions about this book and that's why it's been sitting on the TBR shelf, always hesitating on whether I want to read it or not. Thanks for the "head's up".


Violet wells Julie wrote: "Great review, Violet. I have to add, though, that your first line made me laugh out loud -- and I only reply to it with tongue firmly in cheek. I would say it's very easy to "create an uneducated c..."

Ha ha! Of course it'd be a piece of cake to create a caricature of an uneducated person. God knows the principle motivation behind the Brexit vote made it clear how many we have in our midst. But it'd be tough to plunge down into their inner life.


message 33: by Carol (new)

Carol A beautifully written critique, Violet. I have this one to read...eventually.


message 34: by PorshaJo (new)

PorshaJo Great review Violet! I have read so many reviews on both sides of the spectrum on this one. I don't plan to read this one. To be honest, after I listened to the author talk, it really made me decide NOT to read it. I think there has been so much 'over' hype on this one too.


Violet wells Carol wrote: "A beautifully written critique, Violet. I have this one to read...eventually."

Thanks Carol.


Violet wells PorshaJo wrote: "Great review Violet! I have read so many reviews on both sides of the spectrum on this one. I don't plan to read this one. To be honest, after I listened to the author talk, it really made me decid..."

Thanks PorshaJo. I found it overrated.


Ramya What an insightful review!


Violet wells Ramya wrote: "What an insightful review!"

Thanks Ramya.


message 39: by Tom (new) - rated it 2 stars

Tom Green Great review, you voiced my reaction I could not find the words for. Missing that connection to Cora killed this for me, “a cinema” indeed.


Violet wells Tom wrote: "Great review, you voiced my reaction I could not find the words for. Missing that connection to Cora killed this for me, “a cinema” indeed."

Thanks Tom.


message 41: by Book (new)

Book Snob Does anyone find it odd that Whitehead, who hails from New York and probably never spent much time in the south, could write a compelling novel about slavery? Colson is an accomplished writer, but is the subject matter out of his element?


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