30th May 2012
Underground by Gayle O’Brien
Hookline have an interesting approach to choosing their list – they accept submissions from Creative Writing MA students and then send the manuscripts to book groups around the U.K.
The highest rated are then published. Gayle O’Brien won the competition this year, and her novel was published in April.
Using dual narratives, Underground tells the story of two young women living a hundred and fifty years apart.
Annie is living with her mother in a near-derelict farmhouse in Vermont, far from the warmth of her native Virginia.
From the beginning it is clear that something has forced them to run from their home, with frequent references to ‘the night everything changed’.
O’Brien sustains the suspense relatively well, with information about what, or who, they are fleeing being drip-fed to the reader gradually.
When Annie meets Theo, a local boy her own age, she slowly begins to trust him and reveals a letter that she found in the farmhouse’s basement.
Written but never sent in 1861, it is from a girl to her father, begging him to forgive her and trust her when she says that she is happy.
Annie and Theo become obsessed with finding out why it was never sent, and what happened to its author.
Samantha is a seventeen-year-old daughter of a Virginian plantation owner, on the verge of her cotillion, or coming-out party. Her mother is convinced that she will marry the eldest son of their neighbours, but Samantha has grown up playing with the younger son, Eli.
He has promised to persuade their parents that he is worthy of marrying Samantha, but no-one can foresee the fatal consequences of his endeavour.
Living on a plantation in 1861 Virginia tends to mean being brought up to believe that slavery is the natural order of things. Samantha has unthinkingly accepted this for 17 years before circumstances force her to choose where her sympathies lie. Her choice ends up surprising everyone, including herself.
I was unsure what to expect from this novel but, for the most part, I was pleasantly surprised. O’Brien has a lively style and her story zips along at a fair pace. The alternating chapters allow her to create a lot of cliffhangers but this can get slightly annoying, as just as I was getting into one strand of the story, it cut to the other.
The narrative involving Samantha was the more interesting and absorbing. I knew next to nothing about the underground slave rail-road and, whilst I’m no expert now, I do feel as if I want to go and read more about it having read Underground.
Samantha herself is a more sympathetic character than Annie, and the way in which she discovers a lot about herself and her inner strength as the novel goes on was believable without being twee.
Unfortunately, because O’Brien has tried to give both of her protagonists an ‘arc’, Annie’s characterisation is a little forced. Although designed to show how shallow she is at the start of the book, lines such as “she couldn’t deny she liked the effect this regime was having on her shape” made me want to throw the novel out of the window.
It takes Theo accusing her of being anorexic to make Annie realise that she is being ridiculous, which also made me wonder. In a novel with two ‘heroines’, could O’Brien not have resisted making one of them dependent on a boy?
All in all, Underground was a fairly enjoyable fast read. I’ll be interested in what Hookline publish next, especially considering the notoriously fickle tastes of book groups. Out now, you can get the paperback for £8.99 or the kindle edition for £4.11.
Recommended for: Anyone who wants an unchallenging but fast-paced novel by a new author; anyone who likes the idea of a different type of publisher.
Other recommended reading: For a more in-depth novel about plantations and slave-owners, try Property by Valerie Martin.