It’s not–this book is very readable, for all that it’s about weighty topics and takes time to get through. You can see it from how long it took me to finish (although I also got busy with work between), but this is not a book you’re happily curling up to read in the sun.
I think the easiest way to explain this book is to compare it to another book that takes a slightly revisionist/fantasy view of what the Underground Railroad was like–that is, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. If that book is an unrelenting parade of the horrors of human slavery in the U.S., this book is an ocean (to stick with the metaphor). Which is to say–it’s a giant mass of saltwater that will kill you in a million ways, and there’s no way you are going to survive on it. But intermittently, as you drown, you can float and catch your breath.
That’s…not my best metaphor, but I’ll leave it be and explain in clearer words. In Underground Railroad, it’s hard not to get a bit overwhelmed and numb to what’s going on. I know that slavery was terrible, awful, dehumanizing, etc. Reading about it for ~400 pages, as Cora goes from misery in Georgia to misery in South Carolina to misery elsewhere overflows your ability to absorb new information very quickly. It’s a deluge, to use another watery metaphor.
Coates is a bit more measured, though. He gives you ebbs and flows, so that you can catch a breath and feel a bit stable before the ground completely shifts beneath your feet and leaves you gasping at the cruelty of it all. And that’s why I enjoyed this book more, if you can call it enjoyment. There are moments of grace, connection, and love–as there were amongst the enslaved peoples of the South, as there were amongst freed people in both South and North–but then there is no forgetting that there is no freedom, no joy when there are those who are enslaved. While I’ve always questioned for whom, exactly, Whitehead is writing, I feel like I understand Coates’ mission.
Last thought: my favorite reveal was that of “Moses” [Harriet Tubman!]