Audiobook alternative history about the Underground Railroad
Content warning: slavery, violence, sexual violence
As I said in a previous review, I’m currently trying to motivate myself to go to the gym by listening to audiobooks only when I am at the gym. I was scrolling through the available books, and this one jumped out at me. I had heard that it had won lots of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and they were more than enough credentials for me to try it out.
“The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead and narrated by Bahni Turpin is an alternative history novel about slavery in the USA. The story is mostly about Cora, a young slave who lives on a plantation in the state of Georgia. When she was very young, Cora’s mother Mabel escaped without her. Left to fend for herself against attempts to steal her tiny plot of land, gang rape and beatings, when Cora is asked by another slave called Caesar to escape with him, she eventually agrees. The Underground Railroad, which Whitehead imagines as a literal railroad underground, takes Cora and Caesar to South Carolina. Given a job and a new life in a new city, Cora must decide which is greater: the cost to stay, or the risk to keep running.
This is a heavy, intense book that reimagines this period of American history and distills it to its essence. Whitehead’s depiction of the underground railroad as an actual railroad was so convincing, that I was most of the way through the book before I asked myself, hang on… This is an incredibly challenging book, and the seemingly never-ending variety of horrors enslaved people were subjected to is very difficult to hear. Cora’s characterisation as a resilient young woman living in her mother’s shadow, and with her mother’s abandonment, was engaging, and I thought that the last few chapters of the book were the best.
The ending really elevated this book for me, and I have to admit that there were parts of the book that did stretch on – especially when Cora was hiding in an in North Carolina, completely dependent with her health slowly ebbing away. I think that while she was a clear narrator, Turpin had a sardonic, languid style that I felt was sometimes at odds with Cora’s inherent gumption and opportunism. However, it certainly aligned with the parts of the book where Cora was required to stay very still like on the railway, working in the museum and later in the attic.
A well-written, fraught and necessary book with a superb ending.