Winner Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2017. National Book Award Winner 2016. Man Booker Prize 2017 longlisted. 'Terrific' - Barack Obama.
This is not a historical novel. Not just because the facts of slavery in pre-Civil War America are strained through the wonderful, allegorical, imagination of an expert story-teller (the railroad of the title is not the metaphor of history books, but real steam trains in real tunnels). But because it’s a book about now: 2016. Not explicitly - but elliptically, powerfully, wonderfully.
At one point a flash-forward sees an ex-slave shake her head at a description of the “Great War in Europe” - as “The Great War had always been between the white and the black. It always would be.”
The character was speaking at a time before a black President was even conceivable, and with slavery still in living memory, but the author is saying it right now. Not just in this line, but throughout the book. The Underground Railroad may be set over 150 years ago, but it was written in the era of #blacklivesmatter and that context feels as relevant to the core of this book as the historical one.
The story tells of Cora; granddaughter of Ajarry, brutally kidnapped and shipped to America before being repeatedly bought and sold and eventually dying on the plantation, and daughter of Mabel, who journeyed in the opposite direction - mythically escaping the plantation never to been found.
A good chunk of the book chronicles life on the Randall Plantation, and Cora’s precarious position there. The descriptions of slave life are undoubtedly grim, and the violence is truly horrific, but it isn’t dwelled upon, it’s just there - a fact about life, something to know, to try not to avert your eyes from, but not to linger on either. As it should be.
She escapes the plantation thanks to a secret network of rough hewn tunnels and battered old locomotives. But Cora’s escape is no uplifting journey to freedom. Each time she pops up for air she encounters a different kind of dangerous racism - distinct on the outside, but coming from the same place, and ending the same way.
There is a sense that it is all about the journey - even if Cora manages to escape, will she ever be free? If the next leg of the fantastical journey time-travelled to 2016, what cloak would the racism wear then? Would she even be free in the modern era? The implication is; no.
As Cora notes, the danger isn’t just from “the savage ones.” While some of the characters are twisted and vicious, evil is done, too, by those merely fearful and weak, or following the herd; by those self-righteously convinced they are working in everyone’s best interests or paralyzed by the conflict between their desire to help and their own self-preservation. All of them are a threat, and plenty of them are not a million miles away from the characters that populate our everyday lives now, maybe even from ourselves.
Intentionally or otherwise, The Underground Railroad is a lesson both in history and in perceiving the present better. A call to arms to take that fresh perception and be suitably moved to action: to join the underground railroad of 2016.
It’s not an accusation and it’s not preaching; there’s no high-handedness or moralising. It’s a great tale, with great characters swept up in it. But it is also a simple reminder of the past in the context of the present - laying out the facts and asking the questions. You could happily read it, be entertained and nothing more - but that would be a shame.
Published: 6th October 2016, Little, Brown UK
I have a daughter. She’s five, and so endlessly smart, funny and good that Foer himself could have written her. But I’m constantly pulling her up on the slightest thing; a slump, a delay, a bit too much cheek. She’s just so very close - to what, I don’t know - that I feel the need to pick away at the little things. And so it is With Here I Am.
This is an epic, ambitious, stimulating, layered, witty and insightful book. It’s magnificent, truly. And yet.
The standards for Jonathan Safran Foer are considerably higher. Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close is a constant in my ever-changing top 5 books. And, as expected, Here I Am is one of the most interesting books I’ve read in years. But I still feel compelled to pick it apart. It has everything piled into it, but it’s at once too much and not enough, it’s painfully sharp but then seems lost in the fog of whatever point it’s trying to make, it picks such uncannily familiar emotions from the minutiae of everyday life, but it fails to actually connect with me emotionally. It's beautifully, effortlessly written, but feels in desperate need of a fearless edit.
The family at the centre of Here I Am are the Blochs. Successful, urbane couple Jacob and Julia - Jacob is a TV writer perpetually in need of reassurance, Julia an architect, but first and foremost a mum, expertly spinning plates and balancing the needs of their three beloved sons Sam, Max and Benjy while dreaming of escape. Jacob’s Dad Irv is a controversial political antagonist, his Mum Deborah the calm port in the storm, his grandfather Isaac the holocaust survivor contemplating suicide as his final life goals are completed and Argus the old dog as simultaneously loved and ignored as Isaac. There is also Jacob’s visiting Israeli cousin Tamir - at once comic relief and moral centre.
But the family are only half of this book. The title Here I Am refers to the story of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac - Abraham replies 'Here I am', and later, when Isaac questions why they have no animal for the sacrifice, calling out “my father,” Abraham repeats the phrase, ‘Here I Am’. Sam’s interpretation of the story - delivered at the Bat Mitzvah speech of his Latina alter-ego in online game world ‘Other Life’ - is that Abraham wants to be fully present for both his God and his son, even though, in the circumstances, that is impossible.
A parent’s relationship with their child, an individual’s relationship with God; family and Judaism. These are the two threads at the centre of this book, and for the Bloch family, as with Abraham, the two are inextricable, competing as they feed into each other. Jacob is grappling with his identity in both those arenas. His marriage is falling apart - triggered by some secret and salacious sexts, but essentially for no greater reason than ennui and drift, and so is Israel, via more dramatic means in the form of an imagined devastating earthquake that triggers war.
Of the two threads, I found the family storyline by far the stronger. I loved the Bloch family and I cared about their disintegration. Foer’s take on family life is subtle, fascinating and tender. I ached over every gap in communication, every wall erected needlessly between characters, every insult that fell harder than intended. More than once I couldn’t resist reading a quote to my husband as it was such an interesting angle either on marriage or parenting. I’ve made mental notes of some of their charming romantic constructs to use in my own life. The dialogue is amazing, and I frequently laughed out loud - although admittedly loudest when 5 yr-old Benjy is pestering the grown ups to explain what the n-word is, and his grandma Deborah decisively tells him ‘noodle.’ You have to be there.
I was less sold on the Israel /Judaism thread. Maybe I’m simply the wrong audience to wring all the power from this; while I’m fascinated by the insight into a culture I don’t know enough about, I’m not emotionally involved in that particular identity struggle. But in fact my issue is more with the fictional earthquake than the theology. The whole disaster happens off-stage and feels as though Foer needed something to peg an identity crisis on, so shoehorned in a natural disaster to provide a cultural challenge for Jacob to face up to: should he answer the call of the Israeli Prime Minister and return to his ‘homeland’ to fight? It felt overly constructed and artificial, leaving the cracks of the story showing and distancing you from the narrative.
It‘s that sense of distance that niggled at me throughout the book. It is all so self-conscious and self-aware. In addition to his day-job, Jacob has written an unshared TV show based on his family life. As the book progresses it shifts nebulously between Jacob’s ‘real’ life, and the parallel tv script. It’s hard to resist the temptation to assume a third layer - the TV show sitting within the book, sitting within Foer’s own life - and just like that you are outside the book, analysing rather than experiencing. It’s just too self-conscious to lose yourself in.
There is a certain self-importance too. Or is it just an importance? Am I doing it another disservice? This is an ambitious book. It has EVERYTHING in it. It feels like the book to end a very talented authors career, his masterwork. But despite the number of pages, it’s a little too rushed. He needs it to to be War and Peace to deliver all of his messages through the story rather than from the soapbox. Instead we get JSF’s intriguing personal philosophy in quote-able form, often in a speech.
So, while intellectually fascinating, that distance meant it didn’t emotionally connect. I cared about the Blochs, but I was pulled too far away from them, sat next to Jonathan Safran Foer - in awe of him and listening with interest to his analysis of his characters, but not feeling their pain. There are places in the book where I would have expected, if only because of personal resonance, to be sobbing uncontrollably. But I got to the end without a single tear - not my preferred result. People who dislike Foer’s previous work, seem to find it kitschly sentimental and too shameless with the heartstrings (especially the precocious children.) But I love that bit. I want my life lessons to seep in unnoticed as I’m swept away with love for the characters. In Here I Am Foer has kept all the precociousness, but lost the lovability.
And that’s the difference between Here I Am and my wonderful daughter. Of course I love her and care about her while picking at her flaws, but for all its brilliance, I’m not sure I care quite enough about this book. But we’re still talking about niggling flaws in a great book. For a review of a Jonathan Safran Foer book, it may only get 2 stars, but for a book in the context of all the other books I’ve read this year it still gets 4.
Published: 6th September 2016, Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books (UK)
Halfway through reading this book, I was considering telling a real life lie. I caught myself worrying my ‘smoke’ would betray me.
For that’s how tangible the magic spun in Vyleta’s world is. It’s Victorian England, but with a crucial difference: its inhabitants’ bodies emit smoke when they ‘sin.’ Sometimes light, pale plumes that can be wafted away in a second; sometimes foul smelling, bitter clouds seeping darkly from every pore.
The plot follows two friends, Charlie and Thomas, at boarding school: Charlie is so naturally kind and good that he barely smokes, Thomas can be shamefully stirred to a death-black soot by anger. It starts as a mystery, working out why Thomas smokes as he does, and develops into a quest to understand the nature, origin and meaning of the smoke itself - and, consequently, of ‘sin’.
Vyleta has a light touch with these big questions, and it’s that, combined with the subtlety and magic of his vision, that have probably inspired the comparisons to Philip Pullman. The book’s other main strength is the sweet teenage friendship between Charlie and Thomas, and the impact of a shared love interest, Livia - it may be this that drew the Harry Potter nods. But Smoke stands alone, comfortable in the Adult genre despite its teenage protagonists.
And it’s certainly gripping. Every now and again a book comes along that I’m so addicted to, I start to hate it. I resented this brilliant book, a lot. In no small part because its magic seeped into my non-reading consciousness as deeply as when I was lost in the pages.
But perhaps also because it never quite delivered on its marvellous promise. It gave enough at every turn to keep me hooked, and I was satisfied enough at the end, but I doubt any story could fully realise the dizzy heights of the wonderful world it was set in.
For me, the setting was enough. A chance to explore an intoxicating and magical alternative reality, while being grateful we escaped it: my little white lie got thorough and no plume of smoke betrayed me.
Published: 7th July 2016, W&N, Orion Publishing Group