Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” was a very good book that I so wanted to be great. The writing, the story, the characters, and the world-building — not quite magical realism, but not straight historical fiction either — were all top-notch, but, still, it felt like something was missing. I experienced a greater sense of this with “The Nickel Boys,” Whitehead’s “Underground” successor, feeling that it would have been stronger as reportage than fiction.

Here, Whitehead fares better by not hewing strictly to historical accuracy, infusing the story with anachronistic touches — Jim Crow race laws, lynching as entertainment, eugenics programs, etc. — that put the reader in multiple time periods at once. The result is the literary equivalent of The Beastie Boy’s “Paul’s Boutique” or The Beatles’ “Love,” thrilling to read because you’re trying to pinpoint and make sense of all the references layered atop one another.

So, what’s missing? A first-person narrative. For me, “The Underground Railroad” would have been more powerful and more moving had it been told through its protagonist, Cora, allowing us to feel what she felt. That would certainly have limited the scope of the novel but greatly expanded its impact. Still, Whitehead is a talented writer with important things to say, and I’m certain there is a five-star book in our future.

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