There is a lot to like about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ debut novel. I appreciated, for example, the way he illuminates the complex relationships between the enslaved and those who enslaved them, especially when, as so often happened, those characters were actually blood-related. In this case, Hiram, the book’s main character is the son of his enslaver, Howell, who knows in her heart that Hiram is a more intelligent and worthy son that his dissolute white son, Maynard. Howell can know this but be part of and a supporter of a system that is built on the idea that Hiram isn’t exactly human.
I also liked the exploration of memory, which reminded me of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. Here, memory is a source of terror and pain, as well as a source of power that so many enslaved black people were deliberately cut off from, as they were taken from their homes and separated from their families. And I (mostly) liked the way Coates made that memory power literal, by coming up with a supernatural storyline in which Hiram is able to use memory to create a path of escape.
However, the book as a whole didn’t work for me as well as I’d hoped. It’s an ambitious book, and I think it ends up being too ambitious, exploring so many ideas — the importance of family, the nature of freedom, the power of memory, the perils of allyship — and straddling so many genres — literary novel, historical fiction, speculative fiction — that it lacks a single firm and clear foundation.
As I was reading I kept thinking about Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, which also creates a sort of fantasy version of the actual underground railroad. In Whitehead’s book, the railroad is the central feature, carrying the main characters from place to place (and, in a sense, across time). And Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (one of my favorite books of recent years) makes relationships the central idea, as Washington goes from place to place and has to navigate new kinds of relationships. I liked both of these books a lot better because they felt whole in a way that this book doesn’t.
I also was bothered by the way Coates depicts Harriet Tubman, imbuing her with powers she didn’t actually have. To me, it made her remarkable achievements, which haven’t been depicted in mainstream fiction nearly enough, seem less remarkable than they were. I don’t necessarily expect real historical figures to be depicted with absolute accuracy in fiction, but I often don’t like it when totally unlikely scenarios are posited. Other readers will of course feel differently about this kind of thing.
I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from reading this book who is interested in it. My view is, as best I can tell, an outlier. And I hope the upcoming Tournament of Books discussion will help me to see some of the book’s better qualities that I missed. But if you haven’t read The Underground Railroad or Washington Black, I’d recommend putting those on your list first.