Colson Whitehead‘s novel The Underground Railroad (review copy from Little, Brown) has achieved an interesting double: winning the Pulitzer and the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2017. It’s also shortlisted for the Booker Prize. The Pulitzer, the Clarke and the Booker are unlikely bedfellows, but they show the impact this book has had. Whitehead has written a magical realism novel about slavery in America, following escaped slave Cora on her journey to freedom.
Whitehead literalises the underground railroad of the book’s title, using it as the engine that drives Cora from state to state on her escape, experiencing different aspects of the slave experience. Whitehead moves Cora through time as well as space, enabling him to fictionalise real events that took place over American history. This is an analogue of Pilgrim’s Progress, or the copy of Gulliver’s Travels Cora finds in the library: a journey that is enabled and hindered by people she encounters, and tempting her to end her travelling and settle at various points on her way.
Cora’s journey is one from a closeted, pastoral existence to increasing social and political awareness, and growing personal agency. Each step on her journey broadens her understanding of the world and increases her dissatisfaction, showing a different aspect of the discrimination and exploitation suffered by black people, both enslaved and free. Some of that is obvious: the cruel plantation owners or the weekly lynchings of escaped slaves. But some of it is much more subtle and insidious, including the benevolent white people seeking to instil their own values and practices, a thin veneer of tolerance concealing medical experimentation and other forms of control.
Most of all, The Underground Railroad shows how people are active and complicit in perpetuating systems of oppression. The system sets people against each other, even those that might appear at first blush to be natural allies. Poor Irish immigrants like the maid Rose are keen to separate themselves from those at the bottom of the heap; others find it an outlet for their saviour complexes; still others live in fear of setting themselves against their neighbours by standing up against poor treatment.
Ultimately, Cora’s choice is one to pursue and shape her own destiny, rather than to fall into the choices and structures of others. Freedom comes in many forms, but that is the only one that truly counts.
Goodreads rating: 4*
Assisted suicide is not everyone’s cup of tea, but Steven Amsterdam‘s The Easy Way Out (review copy from Quercus through NetGalley) is warm, darkly comic and very life-affirming.
Evan is a nurse who has drifted through life and relationships without ever putting down roots. His mother’s diagnosis with Parkinson’s and her increasingly frail health force him to settle to look after her and help cover her medical bills. He takes a job as a nurse in a new pilot hospital programme that takes advantage of the recent legalisation of assisted suicide. His role is to help with the assessment and treatment of participants, assisting them and their loved ones to make decisions about end of life within the confines of the law, and to help them to carry out their wishes. As his mother’s health declines, Evan is forced to confront the question of whether he would be willing to help his mother end her life when the time comes.
At its heart this is a novel about compassion and the human spirit. Evan is found to be unsuitable for his role in assisting the dying because he seeks to make emotional connections with patients and their families, showing compassion and engaging with them as people rather than patients. The hospital’s programme is motivated as much by the desire to save money on end life care costs as it is by the desire to give people control over the timing and manner of their deaths. The zest and passion for life shown by Evan’s mother as she enjoys a temporary reprieve from her degenerative illness illustrates the importance of autonomy and control over one’s destiny. Her individuality manifests itself in surprising and delightful ways, in ways that the healthcare system would otherwise stifle.
For all its dark subject matter, The Easy Way Out is a sweet and warm book.
Goodreads rating: 3*
Summerlong by Peter S Beagle (review copy from Tachyon) is in the fine tradition of literary fiction about the impact of an outsider on a settled community. Lioness Lazos is the new waitress at the restaurant on a remote island near Seattle. On an impulse, Abe and Joanna invite her to live in Abe’s garage, sensing that she is somehow in need and on the run from something or someone. But as the spring and summer progress, they start to notice strange things happening around Lioness: unusual weather patterns, perpetual flowers, mysterious strangers starting to appear. All of this ultimately puts Abe and Joanna’s relationship to the test as they unravel the mystery that is Lioness.
This is a novel that works best as a straight examination of Abe and Joanna, and their relationship with each other and with Joanna’s daughter Lily. Their relationship is one of long-standing, and has weathered many bumps over the years until they’ve found ways of being together than work for them. Abe, a retired historian lives on the island, researching and writing his next book. Joanna is nearing the end of her career as senior airline cabin crew. She lives on the mainland, but they visit each other frequently in a well-worn routine. Lioness’s presence on the island becomes a catalyst for a crisis in their relationship, but also for both Abe and Joanna to question their priorities and goals in life. Abe chooses to pursue a long-held dream of taking his blues harmonica-playing more seriously, joining a band. Joanna has always dreamed of learning to kayak, to float in the gap between water and sky.
This story of mid-life crisis with life resettling into a subtly changed pattern is well-worn territory in literary fiction, and Beagle’s take on it is delivered deftly and with real warmth. But the genre elements for me add very little to the story. It’s ultimately immaterial what Lioness’s story is, or what – or who – she is running from. The important thing about her is that she is the disruptive outsider whose presence instigates the events of the novel. I think it would be a stronger novel without the genre elements, if anything. The ending of Lioness’s story is one of the weaker parts of the book.
Summerlong is not a style of book that will appeal to most mainstream genre fiction readers, but it’s a warm and engaging story that’s definitely worth dipping into.
Goodreads rating: 3*