The Last Namsara by Kristen Ciccarelli

the last namsara.jpgTitle: The Last Namsara

Author: Kristen Ciccarelli

Genre: Young Adult Fantasy

Publisher: Hachette Australia

Published: 3rd October 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 304

Price: $19.99

Synopsis: A gripping YA crossover series from a spectacular new voice in the genre Once there was a girl who was drawn to wicked things

Asha is a dragon-slayer. Reviled by the very people she’s sworn to protect, she kills to atone for the wicked deed she committed as a child – one that almost destroyed her city, and left her with a terrible scar.

But protecting her father’s kingdom is a lonely destiny: no matter how many dragons she kills, her people still think she’s wicked.

Even worse, to unite the fractured kingdom she must marry Jarek, the cruel commandant. As the wedding day approaches, Asha longs for freedom.

Just when it seems her fate is sealed, the king offers her a way out: her freedom in exchange for the head of the most powerful dragon in Firgaard.

And the only person standing in her way is a defiant slave boy . . .

THE LAST NAMSARA is an extraordinary story about courage, loyalty and star-crossed love, set in a kingdom that trembles on the edge of war.

~*~

Asha’s story begins on a dragon hunt, where the identity she has been given her whole life is made obvious from the beginning of the novel. The Old Stories that have been outlawed draw the dragons to her, and, following the name she has ben given, Iskari, she kills them in an attempt to atone for a crime she committed as a child. Asha’s scars tell her story, and cause the people of her city to fear her. Asha has been the stories of her destiny and what killed her mother for years and believed them – without anyone to tell her otherwise, she believes them. Until the day a young dragon prevents her from killing the First Dragon, Kozu, and awakens questions within that will lead her to do wicked and dangerous things to prevent more tragedy from befalling her family, and to prevent events that she has been desperately trying to avoid with the help of someone she never thought she would become close to. As what I hope is the beginning of an intriguing series, it has a little bit of everything, including a touch of romance that does not overtake the rest of the story and overshadow what Asha and those who gather around her eventually to help uncover the truth will have to do.

First and foremost, this fantasy novel is about Asha finding her identity, and uncovering secrets that have been kept from her so that those who wish to harm her can control her and ensure she does what they want, when they want it, and without question. Along the way, Asha’s worldview is shattered, and she befriends a slave, a skral, and learns his name: Torwin, going against centuries of tradition, and connecting with him in a way that puts them both at risk, and that mirrors the Old Stories, told in between sections of the first half of the novel, showing how they have shaped the world and how people like Asha’s father and Jarek, the man her father wants her to wed, fear what does not need to be feared – including the dragons that Asha has been made to hunt and must now protect.

The Last Namsara explores trust, family and identity, and illustrates how those we least expect can become the only ones we can trust. Asha is scarred – and has a paralysed arm from the events at the beginning of the novel, but she does not let this stop her, especially when everything comes to a head and she does what she never thought she would do, and puts herself in danger. It is these dangerous events that lead to the final events of the novel, and presents the reader with more questions than answers during the final chapters, that will hopefully be answered in a future novel, to wrap up the strands that felt they had more of a story to be told.

It is a gripping story that didn’t take me long to read, as it had a decent pace, not too fast or too slow, and intrigue that had me wanting to know what was going to happen next. A great read for fans of Young Adult, and Fantasy Literature.

Booktopia

Advertisements

Secrets Between Friends by Fiona Palmer

secrets between friendsTitle: Secrets Between Friends

Author: Fiona Palmer

Genre: Fiction

Publisher: Hachette Australia

Published: 12th September 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 352

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: Life was about living, experiencing and emotions. The good and the bad. You had to laugh to cry. You had to love to hurt. You had to jump to fall or fly.

Best friends AbbieJess and Ricki are setting sail on a cruise ship, rekindling the excitement of a school excursion they took ten years earlier to the historic port town of Albany, the oldest city on the stunning turquoise coastline of Western Australia. But are they truly prepared for what this voyage will reveal?

Ricki, a dedicated nurse, harbours a dream she hasn’t chased. Is she actually happy or stuck in a rut?

Jess, a schoolteacher and single mother to little Ollie, had a tough upbringing but found her way through with the help of her closest male friend, Peter. But Peter has bought an engagement ring and is ready to propose to Ricki . . .

Abbie had it all: a career, a loving boyfriend and a future, but a visit to the doctor bears scary news. Her world is tumbling down and she feels adrift at sea.

SECRETS BETWEEN FRIENDS is a poignant novel of romance, family dynamics and friendship. Through her highly relatable, sympathetic characters, beloved Australian storyteller Fiona Palmer writes about issues, experiences and emotions we have all faced while posing the ultimate question: What is really important in this life?

~*~

Ricki, Abbie and Jess have been friends for as long as they can remember, and have always shared secrets, and confided in each other – until recently. Jess is a single mother and teacher, who has never revealed the identity of her son’s father. Ricki is a nurse, living with Peter, Jess’s best friend since childhood, and harbouring her own secrets about her dreams that she’s ignored for years, and Abbie has just lost her job, her boyfriend and received devastating news that she feels she can’t share with her friends – at least not yet, if ever. And Peter, loyal to them all, unaware of the secrets his friends are keeping, harbours feelings for two of them. Together, they embark on a cruise to Albany to revisit where they once went during school. It is on this journey that the secrets they have been hiding from each other explode into the open, with each reacting differently to the revealing of their secret to their friends and everyone finding a way to cope, culminating in events towards the end that change their lives forever.

aww2017-badgeWhen I first received this book, I wasn’t sure whether I would enjoy it – however, I found that in some ways I did – I enjoyed that the focus was on the friendship rather than romance, and the life goals of the characters. I felt this gave it something special and important, that finding the one you love isn’t the be all and end all of your life, but having friends who are your chosen family and whom you care about no matter what is just as, if not more important, and it was to Ricki, Jess, Abbie and Peter. I think reading about friendship and the love of friends who become your family is something we need more of – it gives everyone something to relate to, even if you can’t relate directly to the events and characters, but we can all relate to family and friendship, and the importance of this.

As this was the first Fiona Palmer I have read, having received an uncorrected proof with an adorable little beach chair courtesy of Hachette, I wasn’t sure what to expect – and whilst it is one that I may not read again, fans of Fiona will enjoy her latest offering, exploring friendship and what can make or break friends and relationships. The romantic relationships did happen, but were secondary to the friendship the characters exhibited. I hope that fans of Fiona’s work will enjoy this and maybe she will find some new fans from this book too.

Even though I have no plans to read this book again soon, it is a nice light read, and there will be an audience out there for it, and it is possible I will one day revisit this book, but for now, I’ll work my way through the rest of this year’s review books.

Her by Garry Disher

Title: Her

her.jpg

Author: Garry Disher

Genre: Fiction

Publisher: Hachette Australia

Published: 8th August 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 210

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: Beautifully and powerfully written, this is a look at the darker side of Australia’s past – and particularly

the status of girls and women in our society – that will stay with you long after you finish reading.

Out in that country the sun smeared the sky and nothing ever altered, except that one day a scrap man came by . . .

HER name is scarcely known or remembered. All in all, she is worth less than the nine shillings and sixpence counted into her father’s hand.

She bides her time. She does her work.

Way back in the corner of her mind is a thought she is almost too frightened to shine a light on: one day she will run away.

A dark and unsettling tale from the turn of the twentieth century by a master of Australian literature.

~*~

A recurring theme across literature and various stories is the idea of names, and the power that they can have. In Rumplestiltskin, the Queen must guess Rumplestiltskin’s name to save her child, an act she achieves through deception and spying. By announcing his name, he loses, tears himself in half, and as the sanitised versions say, they all lived happily ever after. In Harry Potter, Voldemort’s name is one to be feared, and even years after his initial defeat, even those of Harry’s generation, including Hermione, a Muggle-born, are afraid of speaking it – a fear that Voldemort exploits in the final book to track down those who are trying to fight him. And in Her by Garry Disher, names are taken away as an act of power, a way to control women and girls, and a way to make them feel desolate and alone. The scrap man buys his women and girls, and denies them names and identities beyond Wife, Big Girl, You and Sister. Moving around, selling scrap and goods made from scrap, the scrap man is abusive towards his women, and spends all the money on pub visits throughout the course of the novel, blaming You, Wife and Big Girl.

Eventually, You is questioned by authorities about her name, and why she isn’t in school. She soon desires a name, and eventually, at the age of about six or seven, names herself Lily. From here on in, Lily forges her own identity, and plans to escape with Sister, who becomes known as Hazel. Set during the turbulent first twenty years of the twentieth century, the First World War and the Spanish Flu pandemic, the scrap man and his hastily thrown together family, whose main purpose is to help him deceive, and allow him to do what he wants to them, are unaware of the lingering effects of the war, knowing only that rabbit skins are in high demand for boots and hats for soldiers, and only seeing it as a way to make a living that he soon fritters away at the pub, and blames ‘his women’ for losing.

In a world so consumed by the war, the Kaiser and the trenches, the Australia, the country Victoria that Lily and Hazel know is ignorant of this war that has affected millions. They are sneered at for not knowing how the war has broken people, and broken families. It is, at its heart, a story about broken people, bought by a man who comes across as having no humanity, no feelings, and who uses and abuses people.

Lily’s time spent going around to places and gathering food and sometimes pilfering things leads to her growing sense of identity, something that was denied her for so long, and gives her the strength to keep planning her escape, and plans to take Hazel with her.

It is a novel where every word used pays off, and where the simplest of lines, such as Lily’s desire to hit the Kaiser, even though she doesn’t have an inkling of who it is or the significance of the war years to the country, illustrates how Lily responds to her world, and how an act of hitting a man unknown to her can give her a feeling of power.

I read it in two nights, and it is a well paced novel, that reveals a side to Australian history and humanity often ignored and unacknowledged, contrasting the wider horrors of war to the insular world of people who are out for themselves in more ways than one, and who are willing to manipulate and take advantage of people.

A historical fiction novel about World War One that uses it more as a pin point in time, and an event that simply gives the novel context, I felt this showed the grim reality of how women and girls could be treated – as property that in this story, didn’t even deserve names or identities, and the harsh reality of what it meant to be poor in those times. It highlights what having a name and identity means to us as humans. It is a novel that I might revisit one day, and is definitely one that stays with you for awhile.

Booktopia

Leaving Ocean Road by Esther Campion

leaving ocean roadTitle: Leaving Ocean Road

Author: Esther Campion

Genre: Fiction

Publisher: Hachette Australia

Published: 25th July 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 356

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: From the coast of Australia to Santorini and Ireland, a slice of warm, character-driven fiction in the tradition of Maeve Binchy and Monica McInerney

God damn it, Gerry Clancy, couldn’t you have left well enough alone and stayed in Cork?

Twenty years ago, Ellen O’Shea left her beloved Ireland to make a new life in Australia. Now a popular local in a small coastal town, but struggling to cope with the death of her much-loved Greek husband, Nick, Ellen finds her world turned upside down when an unexpected visitor lands on her doorstep. The arrival of Gerry Clancy, her first love from Ireland, may just be the catalyst that pulls Ellen out of her pit of grief, but it will also trigger a whole new set of complications for her and those she holds dear.

Home is where the heart is – but where exactly is home? Can Ellen and Gerry’s rekindled romance withstand the passage of time, family, young adult children with their own lives, and the shock disclosure of a long-held secret that will put all their closest relationships at risk?

Set in Ireland, Greece and small-town coastal Australia, Leaving Ocean Road is a warm-hearted, poignant story about treasuring our memories while celebrating our new beginnings.

~*~

aww2017-badgeEllen O’Shea’s life has been turned upside down more than once. First, as a young woman in love, first in Ireland and then in Australia, and finding herself pregnant, and abandoned by everyone but the man who would come to be her husband, and other friends she made along the way, and her brother, and her daughter, Louise. Almost twenty years later, now living in Port Lincoln in South Australia, Ellen is cut off from the world following the death of her beloved Greek husband, Nick, and Louise’s departure to university in Adelaide. She feels lost, unable to carry on after losing Nick so suddenly and so awfully. The arrival of a wad of post brings a letter from former lover, Gerry Clancy, whose unannounced arrival on her doorstep throws Ellen into a state of confusion. Faced with a guest, she is pulled out of her funk and slowly begins to remerge into the world and her life. Yet when secrets of the past come out at a dinner party, Ellen’s relationships with Louise and Gerry are left in tatters for the evening, and her life almost turned upside down again, until she is able to work through it and venture to Greece and Ireland and make attempts to patch things up with her husband’s family, her family and Gerry.

Leaving Ocean Road is part romance, but also about family and friendships, and what these mean to us, and the ways these can be taken from us – willingly by one party, or unwillingly, where nobody expects it and the events the follow, that can culminate in tragedy, misunderstandings, and losing out on time spent with family. I found this aspect to be the most powerful in the story, with the romance plots for Ellen and Louise a nice side story for me, although still not my favourite aspect, showing that they could find happiness after the tragic events that had led them to where they were at the start of the novel. I think because the book has love of friends, of family, and romantic love, it can offer something for anyone who reads it, and would be a nice novel for fans of Maeve Binchy or Monica McInerny to read. I do enjoy some romantic subplots; sometimes the less subtle ones are a more powerful too. However, what Esther Campion has done is get a nice balance, where the characters aren’t just there to fall in love, but to discover themselves and reconnect with people they had left behind and thought they may never see again. The Irish setting in the second half of the book held the characters just as naturally as the Australian setting throughout the rest of the book. The characters felt at home in both. The trepidation they felt in Greece soon dissipated as they were welcomed into the family, despite past feelings and assumptions – in the end, the families coming together were what I felt mattered the most in this book.

Nothing was perfect, each character had flaws which is perhaps what made this work more for me than having them all perfect and everything working out perfectly instantly. They had struggles – some were resolved within a few chapters, some took a little longer. The varying impacts of this showed the human side of the characters, and what their various relationships meant to them, and how they went about navigating the murky waters of life.

In the end, though there were things I enjoyed about this book, it was one that I found myself in the middle of the road about – I didn’t hate it and want to put it aside immediately, but I didn’t love it, and will pass it onto someone who will. Like any book and author, Esther Campion will find an audience out there, and even though that doesn’t necessarily include me, I hope she does well in her career.

I would recommend this for fans of Maeve Binchy and Monica McInerny.

Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott

rotherweird.jpg

Title: Rotherweird

Author: Andrew Caldecott

Genre: Fiction, Fantasy, Historical Fiction

Publisher: Hachette Australia/Jo Fletcher Books

Published: 16th May 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 460

Price: $32.99

Synopsis: Welcome to Rotherweird: a town with no maps, no guidebooks and no history, but many many secrets . . . A stunning combination of JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR NORRELL and GORMENGHAST with a dash of THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN.

‘Intricate and crisp, witty and solemn: a book with special and dangerous properties,’ Hilary Mantel

‘Baroque, Byzantine and beautiful – not to mention bold’ M.R. Carey

Rotherweird is twisted, arcane murder-mystery with shades of Deborah Harkness, Hope Mirrlees and Ben Aaronovitch, Mervyn Peake and Edward Gorey at their disturbing best.

The town of Rotherweird stands alone – there are no guidebooks, despite the fascinating and diverse architectural styles cramming the narrow streets, the avant garde science and offbeat customs. Cast adrift from the rest of England by Elizabeth I, Rotherweird’s independence is subject to one disturbing condition: nobody, but nobody, studies the town or its history.

For beneath the enchanting surface lurks a secret so dark that it must never be rediscovered, still less reused.

But secrets have a way of leaking out.

Two inquisitive outsiders have arrived: Jonah Oblong, to teach modern history at Rotherweird School (nothing local and nothing before 1800), and the sinister billionaire Sir Veronal Slickstone, who has somehow got permission to renovate the town’s long-derelict Manor House.

Slickstone and Oblong, though driven by conflicting motives, both strive to connect past and present, until they and their allies are drawn into a race against time – and each other. The consequences will be lethal and apocalyptic.

Welcome to Rotherweird!

~*~

Rotherweird is a town in England, that has been self-governing since Elizabethan times, and though they are firmly in the twenty-first century now, modern technology does not exist or work here. Following expulsion from England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth the first, Rotherweird is a town of anachronisms and history, fantasy and tragedy, but also comedy – making the story a sort of historical tragi-comedy. In Rotherweird, outsiders are not always welcome, and treated with suspicion. The arrival of Jonah Oblong, to be the new history teacher for Form IV, and the sinister billionaire, Sir Veronal Slickstone, set a series of events that will end in tragedy in motion, and lead to further books, which I hope will answer any questions Rotherweird didn’t.

History appears to be important in Rotherweird – as long as it’s not local history or any history prior to 1800 – it will be interesting to see how this is explored in the next book, Wyntertide. Rotherweird is split into six months, and before each month in our time begins, a section of Old History is told – this is the history not taught at the school Oblong is employed at, but that he and Slickstone are working to bring back, though each through different means. In Elizabethan times, Queen Elizabeth I seeks to get rid of the talented children of Rotherweird that she sees as a threat, and Rotherweird’s concealment of them leads to the execution of one of it’s citizens, and thus, Queen Elizabeth I cutting it off from the rest of England.

The Old History sections act as world building through plot, and this is very effective, as is the technique of holding things back, and the hints dropped about Slickstone as Oblong delves into local history, which is forbidden, yet with the arrival of Slickstone, who has permission to renovate the derelict Manor House, Old History and Local History begin leaking out, and not only to the two men trying to look into it and reinvigorate it in Rotherweird.

It is an enjoyable book, where history, fantasy, tragedy and comedy collide in new and unusual ways, to create a novel that is full of intrigue and mystery, and characters that aren’t quite what they seem to be, in a world that is modern yet at the same time, not really that modern, filled with characters who will begin to question the way things are as tragedy begins to strike at people they care for, people who previously had no interest in the world outside of the history they knew, such as Orelia Roc, begin to wonder about that history.

Much like a Shakespeare play, the cast of characters is given at the front, divided into the groups that they represent. In the novel, notes between the characters are handwritten – in Modern English but in the script that can be found in historical documents, where an s can look like an f – though I found these to be readable, and it didn’t take me long to get used to this – having read some such documents, I felt this is what helped me to work this out.

Each section is interspersed with wonderful and magical illustrations by Sasha Laika. These illustrations enrich the story and give it further sense of wonder and fantasy. Rotherweird’s Elizabethan feel in a modern style of writing is magically appealing and I gobbled it up in under a week, the short chapters flying by within minutes, with a decent pace, and nicely balanced telling and showing, it is a delightful novel with a sense of mystery that I enjoy in my reading.

A great read, perhaps aimed at teenagers and adults, it will hopefully become a favourite for many,

images

Booktopia

The Night Visitor by Lucy Atkins

the night visitor

Title: The Night Visitor

Author: Lucy Atkins

Genre: Fiction, Crime and Mystery

Publisher: Hachette Australia

Published: 30th May 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 360

Price: $32.99

Synopsis: How far would you go to save your reputation? The stunning new noir thriller from the author of the bestselling THE MISSING ONE and THE OTHER CHILD. Perfect for fans of I LET YOU GO and THE ICE TWINS.

Professor Olivia Sweetman has worked hard to achieve the life she loves, with a high-flying career as a TV presenter and historian, three children and a talented husband. But as she stands before a crowd at the launch of her new bestseller she can barely pretend to smile. Her life has spiralled into deceit and if the truth comes out, she will lose everything.

Only one person knows what Olivia has done. Vivian Tester is the socially awkward sixty-year-old housekeeper of a Sussex manor who found the Victorian diary on which Olivia’s book is based. She has now become Olivia’s unofficial research assistant. And Vivian has secrets of her own.

As events move between London, Sussex and the idyllic South of France, the relationship between these two women grows more entangled and complex. Then a bizarre act of violence changes everything.

THE NIGHT VISITOR is a compelling exploration of ambition, morality and deception that asks the question: how far would you go to save your reputation?

~*~

The Night Visitor opens with a book launch, with Olivia Sweetman introducing the book she has just written to the world. As she speaks to the swelling crowd, she spies her research assistant within, the woman who has been on her mind on and off for months, researching the book and in other areas, Vivian Tester. Vivian has turned up to the book launch, whether out of spite or curiosity it isn’t certain, but she has been privy to the recent spiralling deceit that has taken hold of Olivia’s life.

Moving between third person perspective for Olivia, and first person for Vivian, the seeds of deceit are planted and slowly, the worlds that Olivia has worked so hard to keep separate begin to collide, forcing secrets to come out and people to fall apart. Between London, Sussex and France, each event leads up to a conclusion that leaves itself open for interpretation, without a fair or complete wrapping up to each of the fraying threads of the story. However, this did work for the story, as Vivian and Olivia were both trying to keep secrets and both trying to keep the threads of their lives from inevitably unravelling.

Both women were flawed – they weren’t perfect, although I got the impression that Vivian thought she was perfect and the way she acted towards Olivia, the way the story played out when the truth about the stalker was revealed and the hints to Vivian’s past were slowly released, and in the end, allowed some understanding of her motives and the goal she had to discredit someone she thought had wronged her. Though it did feel as though Vivian was the type of person who simply could not let something go, even when faced with apologies and evidence that she needed to back off.

The surprises at the end answered a few questions that came up early in the book, and I found the first few chapters a little slow, but they built up nicely to the France section and the events that occurred there that further unravelled the perfect threads of Olivia’s life and questioned everything she knew. In the end, it was an intriguing book, one for readers of psychological thrillers, and an interesting yet somewhat strange ending, as it was the sort of scene I would expect to open a crime novel, but perhaps that is what makes it such a strange yet incredulous and readable novel – that the reader doesn’t know what will happen or what is driving Vivian and Olivia, what connections they have, if any, beyond the research assistant task Vivian has taken on. In creating less than perfect characters, Lucy Atkins has created a work that shows the flaws of human nature and desire and asks the question of just how far some people will go to maintain their reputation.

Booktopia

2017 Pultizer Prize Winner: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

undergroud railroad.jpg

Title: The Underground Railroad

Author: Colson Whitehead

Genre: Fiction, Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction

Publisher: Hachette Australia

Published: 26th April, 2017 (latest edition), Trade paperback 9th August 2016

Format: Paperback

Pages: 306

Price: $19.99

Synopsis: #1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER and a NEW YORK TIMES BOOK OF THE YEAR

NATIONAL BOOK AWARD WINNER FOR FICTION 2016

2017 Pultizer Prize Winner

‘Whitehead is on a roll: the reviews have been sublime’ Guardian
‘Luminous, furious, wildly inventive’ Observer
‘Hands down one of the best, if not the best, book I’ve read this year’ Stylist
‘Dazzling’ New York Review of Books

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 and she is approaching womanhood, where it is clear even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a slave recently arrived from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they take the perilous decision to escape to the North.

In Whitehead’s razor-sharp imagining of the antebellum South, 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. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But its placid surface masks an infernal scheme designed for its unknowing black inhabitants. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher sent to find Cora, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

At each stop on her journey, Cora encounters a different world. As Whitehead brilliantly recreates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America, from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD is at once the story of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shatteringly powerful meditation on history.

~*~

In the antebellum South, Cora hasn’t seen much beyond the cotton plantation she is enslaved at in Georgia. An outcast as a slave and amongst slaves, Cora’s impending womanhood heralds an uncertain and painful future – one that she longs to escape but doesn’t know how. Until Caesar tells her about the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses set up during the nineteenth century to help slaves escape to free states. Assisted by abolitionists along the way to navigate the route and keep hidden from the slave catcher, Ridgeway. Running for her life and freedom after killing a white boy who tried to stop her, Cora must take on new identities and try to blend – working with a system that at each point, brings disadvantage and bondage of different kinds, and faced with the ignorance that breeds racism in the antebellum South.

Separated at one stage from Caesar, Cora must continue alone, and rely on fellow escaped slaves, freemen and abolitionists, all working to abolish slavery in America, in the decades leading up to the Civil War of 1861-1865. In a penultimate confrontation at a community of former slaves and abolitionists, tragedy strikes and Cora must use all the strength she has left to cross over into the free states, and begin to venture into a life she has control over, but that is still scarred by the shackles and chains of slavery.

Before reading this book, I knew a little bit about the antebellum South, the Underground Railroad, and slavery from a university history course on the American Civil War. It did not go into too much depth from memory, so Colson Whitehead’s novel helped to bring these stories to life more for me. As I read Cora’s story, I found it engaging, and at the same time horrifying: it was a story that gripped me on a human level, horrified at the way Cora had been treated, and as soon as she had some hope, it was ripped away too quickly. As the key character, all events and characters are seen through her eyes, and her judgement, but as she travels the Underground Railroad and encounters a variety of people in all walks of life, it felt that Colson Whitehead was showing the breadth and depth of how different people reacted to slavery, and how they felt about it. This made Cora’s story more powerful as she worked out who she could put her trust in and when, and in her dealings with Ridgeway when he caught up with her.

Using this historical backdrop, Whitehead has created a world of authenticity with a darkness to it that can’t be escaped or denied when discussing slavery and the antebellum South in the nineteenth century. Whitehead’s story mingles literary fiction and historical fiction, with a nice balance of character and plot throughout, interspersing Cora’s story with perspectives of her mother, Caesar and an abolitionist’s wife who nursed her back to health when she got sick. Cora travels through states that are determined to drive out the black population entirely, and states who seem to deal with black people but still treat them like second class citizens, or worse. The dehumanising language of slurs and “it” to refer to runaway slaves are shocking – but necessary. They set the tone for the characters and the setting of the novel as well.

Colson Whitehead has sewn the threads of this novel together eloquently, and by evoking a sense of place for each stop along the Underground Railroad, a sense of self in Cora and utilising speech patterns that fit the characters and places, has created a novel that must be read to understand the other side of the story to slavery and the Underground Railroad: the hopelessness felt by slaves, and the way they were mercilessly pursued and viewed as property in many places.

By shocking readers with the raw brutality of this period in time, Colson Whitehead’s novel will hopefully open up a dialogue and allow these issues to be explored further.

Sydney Writer’s Festival Appearances and links:

Colson Whitehead: The Underground Railroad (Conversation)

Saturday 27th May 8.30-9.30PM

https://www.swf.org.au/festivals/festival-2017/colson-whitehead-the-underground-railroad/

Pulitzer Prize Winners Colson Whitehead and Hisham Matar

https://www.swf.org.au/stories/pulitzer-prize-winners-colson-whitehead-and-hisham-matar/

Booktopia