The Wind on the Heath | Book Review

The Wind on the Heath

John Sampson (ed.)

University Press of Edinburgh

£28.99

‘But now upon the Gypsy camp

A drowsy silence is descending;

With bay of dogs, and neigh and stamp,

The silence of the steppe is blending;

And everywhere the fires are slack.

All is at rest; the lonely moon

Upon the tranquil bivouac

Pours lustre from her highest noon.

An old man sits, alone, awake,

Within, before the coals, to take

The warmth, till the last flicker dies;

And through the screen the night-fogs make

On the far plain he bends his eyes…’

(Pushkin, p. 52)

Continue reading “The Wind on the Heath | Book Review”

Book Review – The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad

Colson Whitehead

Fleet Publishing

GPB 8.99

The_Underground_Railroad_(Whitehead_novel)

‘If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America. It was a joke, then, from the start. There was only darkness outside the windows on her journeys, and only ever would be darkness.’

 

The sheer volume of escaped-slave narratives available to the book-buying public ensures that it takes something special to rise above the din. In his sixth novel, The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead takes the sub-genre where no-one has previously, with astonishing results.

Cora is a slave on a Georgia plantation in the 1800s who decides to run alongside her associate Caesar. She follows in the footsteps of her mother, Mabel, who ran years before, leaving Cora to fend for herself. Driven by her hatred of the cruel plantation owners and haunted by her mother’s motives in abandoning her, Cora runs north-east to South Carolina.

Whitehead’s centrepiece is his transformation of the Underground Railroad into physical form. Each station is of different character, as are the various drivers of the engines transporting Cora and Caesar. However, what is at face value a twee idea is given short shrift by the brutality the pair encounter on their bid for freedom. Their footsteps are haunted by the slavecatcher Ridgeway, whose only failure was in not managing to catch Cora’s mother years ago.

This novel’s strength lies in it’s characters. It would have been easy for Whitehead to slip into well-worn stereotypes typical of slave narratives – the innocent runaway, the brave abolitionist ahead of his time. He chooses not to do so, and the results are subsequently more plausible. Readers, quite willing to take a young, pure Cora into their hearts, are shocked by the fact that she is spiky, resentful, and often lacking empathy. She is eventually all the more real and admirable as a result of this. Similarly, Cora’s helpers along the railroad have their motives dissected, from their own racial stereotyping to a hereditary burden reluctantly taken on. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, is the character of Ridgeway. Even though he has freed slaves himself, Ridgeway is utterly committed to finding runaways, his not finding Mabel serving as a useful driving force for the narrative. He works so well as an antagonist because his skill lies in working within a larger system; slavery is not his creation, but he has prospered because of it and as such has no motivation to challenge it. His cruelty is not gratuitous, but rather what he considers necessary to subjugate Cora and her friends, horrifying though it is to the reader. It is in Ridgeway that Whitehead delivers his most damning indictment of anti-abolitionist America – complicit, profiteering, and utterly convinced of white superiority.

Needless to say, there is extraordinary cruelty, treated almost incidentally by Whitehead, as it was in the era of the novel. In particular, the horrendous treatment of recaptured runaways is described in a matter-of-fact way, mirroring the transactional nature of the bond between slave and owner. Likewise, Whitehead disposes of characters just as the reader is beginning to bond with them, discouraging any emotional attachment. This has the effect of encouraging the reader to root for Cora even more as she makes her way northwards to what she hopes will be freedom. A superb and sobering read.

Book Review – A Gentleman in Moscow

A Gentleman in Moscow

Amor Towles

London, Windmill Books

£8.99

A gentleman in moscow

 

‘Who would have imagined…when you were sentenced to life in the Metropol all those years ago, that you had just become the luckiest man in all of Russia.’

 

In A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles takes on a gargantuan task. The culture of Soviet-era Russia might not appear at first glance to be comfortable ground for a former investment professional. Towles, though, has an instinctive understanding of what western readers find interesting about the era and is not afraid of using footnotes to expand upon history. What results is the impression that Towles is genuinely fascinated with the evolution of the Soviet Union, a passion that quickly transfers to the reader.

The eponymous gentleman, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, is not immediately apparent as a heroic protagonist. Privileged, aristocratic, and a member of what his prosecutors describe as ‘the leisure class’, Rostov is sentenced to indefinite house arrest at the Metropol Hotel in Moscow by a Bolshevik tribunal in 1922. As he comes to terms with his confinement, Rostov finds comfort in routine, however mundane. Dining at the same restaurant, keeping the same appointment at the barbers, and rearranging his modest apartment allow the count a semblance of order whilst endearing him to the reader.

In what might seem limiting scaffolding for a story encompassing thirty-two years, Towles progresses his narrative through exquisitely drawn secondary characters, from the forthright child Nina, to the irascible chef Emile. Typically for a hotel, some characters linger throughout the book, whilst others, seemingly integral to the plot, disappear heartbreakingly without trace.

Towles treats the major historical events of the novel with similar disparity. The second world war itself, an obvious set piece, slides by with hardly a mention, whilst the gulag is evoked in all its industrial cruelty and horror. It is in this flux that Towles brings his third novel to life. History leaves its mark on the Metropol, its staff, and its guests. Rostov, though, remains serene. It is only when the Soviet Union threatens someone whom he has grown to love that the Count seeks to change his fate rather than console himself to it.

On spec, A Gentleman in Moscow has the potential to be mawkish. It is no such thing. Towles’ lightness of touch makes the novel warm and rewarding, its characters complex and contrasting.