It took me two times to read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. On my first effort I made it about a hundred pages in and decided it wasn’t for me. I was distracted when reading, I guess, or missed what was certainly in front of me: a tremendously good novel of (historical) fiction.
Set in the 19th century we follow Cora on her escapes from a slave plantation in Georgia. If you know anything about this book you know that it features a literal underground railroad: think boxcars and steam engines moving along metal tracks. And Cora does take that physical railroad with many stops along the way. The function of the railroad as a mode of transportation is one also to transport us to different scenes of racial inequality, white supremacy, brutality and horror – demonstrating the ways racism manifests in physical chains and in refusals of opportunity. That is the novel unravels what is ‘structural’ about racism, even while making structured the metaphorical railroad of history.
The novel explores these scenes and the complicated ways white characters live, exercise and wield their privilege with nuance. The efforts of sympathetic abolitionists are complicated by their own fears for their lives or standing in the community; the abhorrent beliefs of slave catchers are revealed as explanatory by the circulating ideas and belief structures of their time. Individuals are culpable, though their actions are positioned in relation to, or explained through, the wider structures that surround them in ways that offer if not empathy or absolution, than a profound recognition of the ways in which the readers’ present beliefs and actions must similarly be filtered through imperfect and unjust structures that are both bigger than and constituted by individuals.
Cora herself is great because she comes in to the narrative as a woman relying on no one, willing and able to exert power in the limited ways she has available to her, and sensitive to the dependencies and needs of those around her without being defined by them.
So yes, if you haven’t read this one yet (you probably have!), go! make haste! And if the first 100 pages don’t grip you… keep on.
Folks. Do not read The Witch Elm. Tana French is great and writes wonderful mystery novels that are giant and delightful, but this is not one of them. Though most review sites disagree with me, so I’m probably wrong or just irritable.
Toby, our protagonist, is super obnoxious. He’s entirely self-absorbed, petulant and unaware of how spoiled his is by everyone around him. He uses his girlfriend, Melissa, in ways that the novel doesn’t seem to be aware of, making her self-sacrifice some kind of example of how women are meant to be when their partners are down trodden. Melissa is cast against Toby’s cousin, Susanna, who is some Gorgon-like revenge-monster, making the alternative vision of femininity one of calculated destruction. Even while Susanna is a maternal figure, ending up with her husband because she couldn’t figure out another option, and mostly seeming bored by her children (a common trope when trying to be edgy and counter the helicopter parent).
I suppose the book is supposed to be about understanding who we are and what we are capable of when pressed by circumstance or when the culture around us doesn’t take our concerns and experiences seriously. There’s probably something meritorious in the exploration of that theme, but honest to god, the book PLODS through these questions, ever so slowly reeling out the circumstances of the murder, the connections among characters and their pasts, supposedly building suspense and adding character complexity, but really just irritating me as I didn’t see the point to long digressions about how much wine there was to be had. Which isn’t to say I want all books to be pot boilers. Honestly, I appreciated that Toby’s uncle was a genealogist, a cute way of getting the reader to think about how our inheritance, too, shapes who we think we are and what we think we should be like as people. There were other clever approaches to the thematic question, but they all kept getting blocked for me by how utterly boring the whole thing was. This question of are we born lucky. Do we control our fate. How are we constrained by gender and sexuality. What do we owe friendship and experience. How does memory contribute to our sense of self and identity. Such great questions. Just so… dull in execution.
If made up statistics are to be believed, most Canadians will read one novel this year. For the love of all that is terrific in reading… let this be your one novel. Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers is extraordinary. Okay. I’m not actually sure this would be the one novel I’d make you read. Ack! That’s a question for another post. But it’s really, really, really good. Continue reading
So remember when kale was like a Big Deal and it was in your cereal and your smoothies and your muffins and you were like ‘stop talking about kale! I don’t like it!’ (Or if you’re my mum, you were like ‘Kale?! I don’t even eat lettuce!’)? That’s how I felt about Pachinko. I was like, stop recommending this book to me, world. I get that it’s ‘good’ and ‘great’ and ‘life changing’ but it just looks dull and maybe over-hyped and probably there’s no way it can be anything other than a little chewy.
This is where the analogy falls apart. Because kale really is over-hyped and (as M. would observe) doesn’t need to be in anything because it’s really not that good. Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, on the other hand, is worth every single page of its 400+ brilliance (when did page count start to matter? In a meeting recently debating how many pages young people are willing/able to read (and our book club has the same talk) and I wanted to have a stomp and yell, because a novel should be exactly as long as it needs to be, and if it’s too long it’s too long because it didn’t need to be that long. I probably felt differently reading Infinite Jest but I DIGRESS).
Right, so Pachinko has the feel of a book that you’re going to read because it’s ‘important’ and ‘recommended’ (aka: full of brain vitamins) but then… it’s just… great. Like as a story you want to read and not put down. While also – and incidentally! that part is important! – being good for your literary life because it’s so well crafted. And in my case good for my political/historical life because I didn’t know *anything* about the history of Koreans in Japan, which… is what the book is about.
Reluctant to tell you the broad strokes of the plot because you’re likely to be like…
Kale. Boring. And it’s not! Anyway, it’s about a few generations of this Korean family living in/being Japanese, but not being Japanese because of bananas rules about Koreans-in-Japan and citizenship. Opening just before WWII we follow threads of gender, class, citizenship and nationality, along with all sorts of ideas of identity/belonging/passing and family. All layered around romance. Oh and religion! It really does have it all (haven’t you heard? Kale also makes your farts smell good).
So yeah. Be a better person and read Pachinko. And I promise this won’t be like interval training or CBD or coconut water [insert other ridiculous fad]. This one be the real deal.