Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. All the slaves lead a hellish existence, but Cora has it worse than most; she is an outcast even among her fellow Africans. When Caesar, a slave recently arrived from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they take the perilous decision to escape to the North.

I’m aware I’m a little late in reading The Underground Railroad. In 2016, it was the book on everyone’s lips. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Book Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. So to say that my expectations were quite high is an understatement.

It starts off very well, plunging you into the hellish world of the plantation on which Cora lives and works and where violence and rape are a matter of everyday life. The portrayal of violence is truly shocking, but their power lies in the fact that these kinds of things did happen in real life rather than the fact that we care for any of the characters. Each secondary character is no more than a brief sketch, so even though we wince at their pain, we’re not as emotionally invested in their journey as we should be.

Cora starts off with great potential; an incident involving her wielding a hatchet in the early chapters bodes well for her as a character. But after her and Caesar’s escape I still didn’t know enough about her to really care about her as a character. Caesar has nothing but his name to make him memorable; we know so little about him as a person that it hardly matters when he disappears from the narrative.

We are further put at a distance to the characters by the flitting between different characters’ points of view and the overly formal style of writing. Some sentences I had read over two or three times, they were so dense with language.

In Whitehead’s novel, the Underground Railroad has assumed a physical form: a dilapidated box car pulled along subterranean tracks by a steam locomotive, picking up fugitives wherever it can. Some reviewers have complained that this tipping over of the book into fantasy territory takes away from the true experience of slaves. But I personally enjoyed Whitehead’s clever metaphor for the darkness of the journey through America for people of colour. After all, this is fiction, not a history lesson.

I enjoyed the first three-quarters of this book, but towards the end Cora’s journey began to feel very repetitive. She travels somewhere new, things seem okay for a while, something terrible happens, and she is forced to flee again. By the end I was glad to finish the book as I was starting to become bored.

Despite its faults, The Underground Railroad is a book worth reading if only for its astonishing, harrowing portrayal of a horrendous time in American history, and the shocking parallels with the world today.