The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I almost feel guilty for giving this book only two stars, since it just won the National Book Award. But it goes to prove that no book is for everyone, and in this case, I have an apples-to-apples comparison to make: a book with a similar subject, storyline and treatment, Ben H. Winters' Underground Airlines. I reviewed it last year, and thought it was fantastic.
The main difference between the two is that Underground Airlines is a far more speculative story than The Underground Railroad. The former is an explicit alternate history; the latter has a whiff of fantasy elements, and not terribly believable ones at that. Colson Whitehead's Underground Railroad is an actual series of tunnels and tracks deep under the earth, where real locomotive engines run? How and where, pray tell, did they hide the cubic tons of earth that would have to be excavated to accomplish this feat? How could they have disguised all the workers, equipment, and noise while the tunnels were being dug, and what about the inevitable collapses and construction accidents? I mean, I like my SFF as much as anyone, and a good deal more than some, but as far as I'm concerned your story has to make some internally consistent sense.
(And yes, I'm sure a historian and economist could tell me all the things wrong with the premise of Underground Airlines. That may be so, but Ben H. Winters' story makes sense on its own terms, and doesn't have such a huge logic disconnect jumping up and down and demanding the reader's attention.)
Secondly, for a book that just won such a prestigious award, the prose here is...pedestrian at best. The writing is terse and dull, and never sang, at least for me. The characters don't seem to be terribly deep, and Cora, the protagonist, was not relatable for me at all. I didn't particularly like her, but I can't think of another character I wanted to step up and take on the main role, which is a sure sign (or should be) that your characterizations aren't working.
The ending is the final problem...which is to say, there isn't one, certainly not in any sense of closure or satisfaction. The story just peters out, and one never knows if Cora finally reaches a place where she won't be betrayed and recaptured yet again, or if her slave catcher has finally gotten his comeuppance. After I turned the last page, I decided I didn't care that much, which is the kiss of death for any book. On the other hand, I cared about the characters in Underground Airlines.
Your mileage may vary, of course, but as far as I'm concerned Ben H. Winters' book is superior in every way to this one. It would definitely be the one I'd choose if they were placed side by side.
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