What’s left to say about this one?
The most critically-acclaimed book of 2016 was also one of those rare literary novels to achieve mainstream commcerical success – thanks in no small part to a glowing endorsement from some woman named Oprah Winfrey.
Does it deserve all the attention and adulation? Mostly it does, yes.
I’ve only tried one Whitehead novel before this: his attempt at a serious zombie novel, Zone One. While I respected the attempt to bring literary cred to a pulpy genre, it wasn’t a particularly successful experiment – the characters were flat and the plot lifeless, no pun intended.
This is much better. It’s a slavery tale, as the title suggests, and that comes with all you’d expect: brutal – though thankfully never exploitative – violence and racial politics with just as much to say about the America of today as the America of the 1860s. Here though, the railroad is real: not just the name given to the network of Northerners who helped smuggle slaves out of the South, but a literal railroad.
It’s a neat little trick that adds allegorical power – and a dash of magic realism – to what might otherwise be a rote, depressing tale about Cora, a plantation slave who finds that escape does not necessarily equal freedom.