The PR machine says it’s a modern masterpiece. I don’t think so. From my review in today’s Times:
Who needs literary critics when you have Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey on your side? Colson Whitehead’s tale of fugitives from slavery has been attracting the kind of publicity that is usually reserved for JK Rowling and the like. By selecting the novel for her hugely influential book club, Oprah has ensured that it has become a bestseller in the US. “This book,” she announced, “has kept me up at night, had my heart in my throat, almost afraid to turn the next page.” Obama joined in last month in a CNN interview, hailing the novel as “terrific”. No surprise, then, that there is already talk of The Underground Railroad being the hit of the season in Britain. Whitehead, the author of half a dozen previous books, including the whimsical novel The Intuitionist and a nonfiction account of the world of poker, has been receiving the James Baldwin treatment.
Does his novel really live up to those feverish expectations? Sadly, no. Its impact, I suspect, is less a reflection of its intrinsic quality than the fact that it arrives at a moment when America is struggling to come to terms with the Black Lives Matter campaign and all that the rise of Donald Trump seems to symbolise about attitudes to race. Pitching in with extravagant praise for a decent but unremarkable novel is the literati’s way of showing that, yes, they really do care. Be seen with this book under your arm, and you are telling the world you are on the right side of history.