I’m not going to write a long review because these two pieces at NYRB and the New Yorker capture the importance, artistic oddities and intellectual range of Whitehead’s novel far better than I could ever do. I think you should read the novel and then read both those reviews.
It’s a historical novel but it doesn’t always fall under the category of “historical fiction.” At the risk of giving away some of the novel’s secrets, I’ll tell you why: “America” morphs as protagonist Cora flees from state to state, and some of these searing, evocative renderings of the U.S. are far more recent than the Antebellum South. This is Whitehead’s novelistic intervention on triumphalist accounts of emancipation, as well as on the way we tend to imagine the South was immoral and the North was just perfect. We imagine this when we talk about the U.S. before the Civil War, and we imagine it afterward. We imagine it in the 20th Century and we imagine it today. A lot of that imagining happens in public schools, but alas, you already knew that (and you knew I was going to mention it).
Whitehead’s novel is getting a ton of gold stars and seals — trivia question: when was the last time any book won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer? — but you know this wasn’t the best novel published in 2016, right? Moreover there’s a handful of books I’ve read that deal with the same issues, that deserve all the acclaim that Underground Railroad is getting but never got it. And probably lots of other books I haven’t read. Check back later this summer for a discussion of a few of those novels alongside Whitehead.