Welcome to the TOB17 Quarterfinals! A wonderful world in which I have read most of the books and have been saving up things to say about them. Let’s start with The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. As an Australian I haven’t read/seen/learned much about the experience of American slavery and so I didn’t notice what Judge Butler pointed out in the first round: the idea that each stop on the railroad is ‘a set piece for a different aspect of the African-American experience.’ I’ve been thinking about this ever since. I also like this from Judge Adewunmi:
America’s sin of slavery is not new, but its terrors have been somewhat dulled over time . . . So Whitehead brought some of that back. Here’s a definitively chilling line on a slave catcher: “Ridgeway gathered renown with his facility for ensuring that property remained property.” The matter-of-fact tone is perhaps the book’s strongest weapon. You do not need to embellish horror: It’s in the way Ridgeway calls all the enslaved people “it,” and it lives in one specifically chilling paragraph about the punishment meted out to another runaway that will haunt me forever.
I know exactly the paragraph she’s talking about and I totally agree. The Underground Railroad was a visceral reading experience. It is full of the close and personal terrors of slavery. The different stops provide a fascinatingly broad picture of the places and people of that era. My only criticism of the book was it’s sense of contingency, in the sense that I didn’t feel it. The structure of the book necessitated its end point in a way that I felt very heavily from about halfway through. I won’t say too much more to avoid spoilers but I will say that at first it didn’t bother me and then as it got closer and closer to the end I started to find the book overburdened with the sense of what needed to happen but hadn’t yet. I found myself skimming through the end because I could see what was coming so clearly that I didn’t really care how it got there.
Even though I really enjoyed All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders I thought The Underground Railroad deserved the win. Although Birds captivated me in a way that Railroad did not, I’ve said before that the book also didn’t surprise me. But I did like it as a way of exploring human emotions against a background of the fantastical. As Judge Adewunmi writes, despite the magic and science fiction, ‘Laurence and Patricia’s dilemmas are rooted in a much more recognisable world: of being at a certain age and feeling like you’re coasting; about wanting something to change but feeling like it is intangible and therefore beyond your reach; of imposter syndrome, and men who assault women’. What I loved about this book (and the others that I have read in this genre) is that, unlike a lot of traditional fantasy, the characters are playing out real life. It makes the impossible approachable, in the way that I would 100% cast spells during sex. But as Judge Adewunmi writes, ‘Anders’s prose—pretty, joyous, and inventive—felt a little too light next to Whitehead’s.’
The next match up was between Brit Bennett’s The Mothers and Version Control by Dexter Palmer. (Still haven’t read Version Control but I’m picking it up from the library today.) I really like The Mothers. It follows the story of Nadia Turner who, after her mother’s suicide and an affair with the preacher’s son, gets an abortion. This act echoes through the years as she befriends another girl from church, goes away to college, and comes back to find her friend married to the father of her unborn child. I haven’t read much about abortion and I liked the way the book gave it a weight without ever condemning the choice Nadia made. That being said, a friend I talked to thought it ended up reading as an anti-abortion piece. I disagree: I think the life Nadia end up with would not have been possible without the abortion and though it isn’t a fairytale ending it includes the escape from her hometown that she longed for and a reconciliation with her father. As a review in the Guardian puts it, ‘Nadia doesn’t want to be pregnant, so she has an abortion, and gets on with her life. But she doesn’t pretend it never happened.’
Judge Rinehart and the commentators talk about the economy and precision of Bennett’s book. Commentator Kurtz says, ‘Bennett’s book is “tightly woven” in sentence structure, yes, but even thematically this sense of constriction is marvelously persistent . . . Bennett is at her best when her characters are too much with themselves, bodies jostling for space in cramped rooms and hallways. She’s a good writer of the claustrophobia of hometowns and tight communities and our banging against the walls of ourselves and our expectations for how intimacy should operate.’ I think that’s a great description of the joys of the book. But parts of it didn’t work for me. I found the device of the omniscient church Mothers a bit forced. It was sometimes clunky and unnecessary, going over delicately handled and interesting plot points with a highlighter as often as it elucidated something new.
(Sidebar: you should read Bennett’s essay ‘I Don’t Know What to Do With Good White People’.)
The next round was between Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi and Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter. I found myself in agreement with Judge Popkey on Grief. It’s a slight, impressionistic book about the grief of a father and his sons for the loss of their wife and mother. I really liked parts of it (see previous post) but found that ‘Crow’s presence, and its implications, feel less personal—that is, specific—than private—that is inaccessible, and in a way that Porter’s sketches of the father and his boys’ grief does not.’ I also felt like I needed to read more Ted Hughes to appreciate this book and I kind of resented it. I don’t want to read Ted Hughes. And to be honest I’m not sure if it would have added much anyway.
On the other hand, I loved Homegoing. It tells the story of two branches of a family descended from sisters born in West Africa, each unaware of the other’s existence. One daughter is sold into slavery and the other marries a British slave trader. From there, each chapter tells the story of a different descendent of these women going through the years to the present day. In the way of such collections, you get snapshots of people in time only to lose track of them entirely or learn of their fate second-hand later. And, also common to these type of works, some sections are stronger than others. But on the whole it created an incredibly broad picture of generations of people who’s lives were shaped, in one way or another, by the slave trade. And then again I liked the juxtaposition with the extreme specificity of the experiences of only certain members of the family. It’s similar to The Underground Railroad in using its chapters as a way to showcase different parts of history from various perspectives. A lot of people (including Commentator Kearns) have said they didn’t think the execution matched the ambition of the concept. I disagree: I loved it. I was excited to see it pass through to the next round and I think it would be really interesting to see it go up against The Undergroung Railroad, a book with which it has lots in common but at the same time couldn’t be more different from.
I haven’t read The Nix or Mister Monkey so I’ll have to give that round a miss for now. See you back next week for more!