Book 1: The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

This book won the National Book award in 2016 and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the following year. You still see it everywhere online and I can’t remember too many recent books that have had the same level of praise and exposure.

Expectations run high with books like this. There’s even two pages of reviews at the start of the book to prime the reader and these are seriously good reviews. You’ve never seen reviews this good.

The story itself is set in pre-civil war America and it’s a brutal, oppressive place. Cora escapes a life of slavery using an underground railway but is relentlessly hunted by the slave-catcher Ridgeway. Should be a powerful story right?

So I started the book. As expected it hits pretty hard at the start. The life of the slave seems even worse than we can imagine. I kept reading though and began to notice something: I wasn’t actually enjoying the book or the characters. The writing didn’t seem to flow and I had to tell myself more than once to keep going and give the book more time.

Now as a rule, I’ll give any book 50 pages. I feel that’s long enough to impress the reader in some way but after reading 100 pages of this book, I was still unimpressed. I keep on to 150 pages on account of the reviews and high expectations. Then I continued reading due to the time I’d already put in, but I was really frowning and scratching my head at this point.

In the end, I finished not so much to see how the book ended but instead to see if there was something about the ending that shifted my perspective of the book as a whole. There was a revelation about Cora’s mother that was one of a few heart-wrenching moments in the book but for the most part it finished as it started.

People talk about Dan Brown’s characters being two dimensional and without emotional depth. Well I kind of feel the same way about the cast of ‘The Underground Railway’. There was always a distance to the way the characters were written which seems bizarre to me to when you consider the emotionally charged material.

It’s psychologically challenging to not like something that is so widely loved but that’s the truth of it. This book just didn’t do it for me at all. I am still struggling to see why so many people liked it. There’s certainly moral warnings in the book that would have given the book a political lift in the America of Donald Trump but that can’t account for the widespread acclaim. It will stay something of a mystery to me I guess, I just can’t fathom it.

So that’s my first book of the year. Pretty disappointing when I was so looking forward to reading it — I even bought my brother a copy (before I read it). I was lining up Murakami’s new book for my next read but since reading this one I’m returning to non-fiction for a while.

Hope others get more out of this one than I was able to, but it’s 2 stars from me.

13 thoughts on “Book 1: The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

  1. You have to go on your own instincts a lot of the time. I’ve never let a book’s popularity entice me to read it, nor if a book’s unknown to be a repellent. Take for instance the Game of Thrones series. I have already seen the tv series, so when I went to read the books it was almost as if I’d already read them. Didn’t get too far into the first one. Adrienne Celt is someone I just stumbled upon, maybe saw her name somewhere or read a synopsis, but she’s a virtual unknown. I’ve read 2 of hers so far and was blown away by both. I admit the TITLE of the book you’re reviewing sounds intriguing and that it would be good, but…..

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  2. I actually really enjoyed the book- the magic realism of the actual railroad and Cora’s journey were compelling page turners. You are right- the characters were not well-fleshed out, and tended to be either all good or all bad- not much nuance. I have to disagree about the Game of Thrones books as mentioned by the other poster. George RR Martin is a great writer and created such complexity in his characters that make for such an excellent read. The many sub plots are missed in the series as well.

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  3. I read this last year. I have to say it was an easy read and prose was quite good. The story got a bit depressing at times but in the end I did like it.

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  4. Haha, I think you read my review so you already know my thoughts. It is funny that you mostly saw glowing reviews because I definitely saw some negative ones before reading. One aspect I appreciated is that it’s like a puzzle to parse out all the influences and historical events Whitehead draws on. I’d also seen a review stating that the distance to the writing is meant to relate to the emotional distance forced upon the characters by slavery. Not certain I agree but it’s a possibility.

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